Chapter 1: Prelude
The messenger hawk arrived in the middle of the night, but everyone was awake as soon as the Firelord’s personal staff heard the news. The siege of Ba Sing Se was a success, and the war was officially over. It was the first time in his life that Prince Zuko had ever seen his grandfather smile, and even his father was in a good mood. Plans and preparations began immediately, ready to throw a celebration like no other once General Iroh and his son returned from the city.
The only person who did not seem happy was his mother, Zuko noted, and clearly he was not the only one.
Azula scowled at her mother, and whispered to him “Of course she’s not happy. She never supported the war, or Grandfather. It’ll only be a matter of time before she actually does something traitorous about it.”
Zuko hissed at her to shut up, but Azula just smirked and left to skulk around the war council members.
It was two months later that their Uncle and cousin finally returned to the Fire Nation, but time did nothing to dissuade the citizens of the victory. The two were hailed as heroes and people loitered outside of the palace for hours to make their cheers be heard. That only made things more surprising when Uncle renounced his claim to the throne, placing his son in line for immediate succession. He had said that commanding an army had been enough for him, and that he had no wish to command a country, despite his birthright. After that, Zuko did not see much of his cousin, as the Fire Sages and the royal advisers prepared him for the role that he was fated to inherit much soon than expected.
His father had been furious to hear of Uncle’s decision, and did his best to persuade Firelord Azulon that Lu Ten was not ready for the role yet, despite the Firelord’s good health. But the Firelord would not hear Ozai’s protests, and sent him away, leaving Ozai to direct his anger towards his family instead. Zuko knew his mother got the worst of it, especially after Zuko walked past her chambers one day to hear her crying. But that didn’t stop Ozai from also taking moments to terrify both of his children either. Azula pretended it didn’t bother her, and it was only a matter of time before she would go back to that girls boarding school, leaving Zuko alone to deal with their father.
About a year after the conquer of Ba Sing Se, a new problem arose, with Water tribe ships attacking and disrupting supply chains between the Earth Kingdom territory and the Fire Nation mainland. Businesses were outraged at the loss of products and profit, and somehow wooden ships still managed to do a lot of damage to hulking metal Navy vessels. The war council was assembled, and soon enough everyone in the palace began expecting the announcement of a new war between the Water tribes and the Fire Nation. But no such announcement came.
Instead, news of another attack arrived, only this time, the ships had orders to retaliate. Fourteen of the sixteen ships that had caused damage were sunk, and over seventy Water Tribe prisoners were taken. The aggression from the Water Tribes subsided quickly, and a new idea emerged.
Zuko would later learn that it had been his Uncle whom had opened the Firelord’s mind to peace talks, instead of engaged conflict, something that would undermine Iroh in the days to come. And so peace talks began, and Iroh left for the Northern Water Tribe, taking his son with him. Iroh’s absence eased his father’s anger, and it wasn’t long before Ozai and Azulon were back on speaking terms. And while Ozai could not convince his father to abandon the peace negotiations, he was able to determine the new terms in which peace could be agreed upon.
A politically arranged marriage appealed to both his father and grandfather, although no one was sure who either man had in mind for said match. Not even Zuko’s mother could tell him, although the worried glances that she directed at her son should have been a big hint, but only days after the negotiations started, she disappeared. Zuko’s father would never explain what happened to her, and Azula was sent back to school as well, leaving him alone in the palace with Prince Ozai and Firelord Azulon.
It was on Zuko’s fourteenth birthday that he was told that it would be his responsibility to marry the individual whom the Water Tribes would pick for the union. He was told that both the Southern Tribe and the Northern Tribe chiefs had daughters, both girls younger than him. Zuko had been horrified, and protested his Grandfather, who would frown and shout at his grandson. Ozai would drag Zuko from the room, and Zuko wouldn’t be able to tell you what else had happened that night, because when he awoke, bandages covered the entire left side of his face.
His uncle returned from the Northern tribe, with a delegation of diplomats to continue the peace talks, and word of Zuko’s condition would remain a secret from everyone outside of the Royal family, except for a healer that had joined the delegation. Iroh was told that it was a training accident that caused the burn, and while Zuko himself would never admit it, he was not fooled. He knew that kind of burn was only caused by close range contact, and no training would have ever resulted in a blow to the face of a royal prince. And so Iroh quickly agreed with the sentiment of Zuko’s arranged marriage, and all that was left to do was wait for the day Zuko would reach the marriageable age of sixteen, at which point the prisoners would be released, and Zuko would be sent far away from his father.
In the Water Tribes however, they were not as easily convinced of the idea of an arranged marriage. Both Chief Arnook and Chief Hakoda were totally against the idea of a political match for either of their children with a Fire Nation Prince, despite the fact that Chief Arnook himself had been part of a political match. Not that it would matter. The day General Iroh left with the political negotiators, the Northern Tribe’s military general reminded Chief Arnook of their already existing marriage contract between their respective familes, leaving the only option with that of a marriage to the Southern tribe.
Hakoda was horrified at the concept of an arranged marriage for either of his children, and knew right then he would never allow them to be forced into a relationship like that. Sokka was twelve, and Katara eleven. Neither of them were old enough to understand the importance of this, and they were both too young to have the option that he had had with his wife Kya to be taken away. It was with that in mind that he told Chief Arnook that he would be the one to marry their representative, and accept full responsibility for the political arrangement. Hakoda told himself that he didn’t care who they would pick, and no matter what, he would always love his wife, no matter where her spirit was now, and that his own love life was less important than that of the lives of his men sitting in a Fire Nation prison.
When he told Bato about his decision, his oldest friend had snorted, and said “You do realize you have to tell your kids about that now right?” And Hakoda had never regretted something more, even though it was far too late to back out now. If only he realized then just what he was about to get into.
Chapter 2: Hatching a Plan
It had been two years since their father had returned back to the Southern Tribe and told Sokka and Katara of his intention to marry someone from the Fire Nation. Sokka remembered that day like it was yesterday as he watched a Fire Nation vessel approach on the iceberg-ridden horizon.
Seeing the two Water Tribe ships sail closer and closer had been both a relief and a shock, knowing that they had numbered sixteen when they left. Katara had beat Sokka in the race to reach their father, and Sokka was able to catch the soft wails of the families of those who did not return. It only made him clutch the fabric of his father’s clothes tighter when Sokka did get his turn at embracing Hakoda. Bato passed the small family as he disembarked from the ship, giving their father a watchful look, and Hakoda’s face darkened. He patted Sokka on the shoulder, and cleared his throat, preparing to address the tribe.
He had said “I know many of you are scared about what I am going to say. As you know, many months ago, we left these waters and entered Fire Nation territory with the intention of attacking Fire Navy ships to weaken Fire Nation control of the Earth Kingdom. But now I bring news of the status of the war, and it is with a heavy heart I announce that the city of Ba Sing Se fell during a siege. Soldiers and colonists began travelling to and from the two mainlands, and now much of the Earth Kingdom is under the strict regime of Fire Lord Azulon. The war…has been lost.” Hakoda’s throat was tight, and cries of horror rose from the assembled tribe.
“We continued attacking Navy ships, in hopes that rebellions would be able to develop and liberate the Earth Kingdom, but a few weeks ago, the Navy ships were ordered to fight back. We took on a lot of damage, and many of our men were taken hostage, to be used as political prisoners. As far as I know, they are still alive. Since then, my counterpart in the Northern Tribe and I have negotiated a political arrangement of peace to get them back. In two years, providing that no outright conflict between the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation occurs, an arranged marriage will occur between myself and a member of the Fire Nation royal family. Whomever they send will arrive with the prisoners, and after the wedding, our brothers and sisters will be released back into our arms.”
“What?” Sokka had blurted out, trying to understand what his father had said, and Katara’s face mirrored his confusion, anger, and horror. Hakoda had shot Sokka a warning look, as if to say it was not up for discussion at the time, and Katara ran off, crying. Hakoda had watched his daughter go, regret and sadness filling his eyes, and Sokka felt a pang of guilt for his father.
Hakoda turned back to his people, as if to say something more, but he’d had no more words. Slowly the tribe disassembled, and people began to process the loss they had just experienced. Some looked at Hakoda with understanding, but grief-filled eyes as they left, and Hakoda tried his best not to let his emotions reveal themselves as his son stood there staring at him.
Finally, it was just Sokka and Hakoda standing there on the dock, and still Sokka said nothing. Silently, Hakoda prayed that his son would eventually speak, it seemed almost foreign to hear no words exit Sokka’s mouth. Moments passed, and Hakoda couldn’t take the silence anymore.
“It’s okay Dad.” The response was short, but soft and understanding, and Hakoda looked at his son in shock. Sokka stepped closer to his father until they were both in each other’s grasp. “You wouldn’t have agreed to it unless it was really important.”
Hakoda wrenched his son into his arms as if he were a lifeline, and buried his face into the crook of Sokka’s neck. “Thank you.” Hakoda whispered, and Sokka wrapped his arms around his father.
“I’m not calling her mom though.” Sokka stated adamantly, and Hakoda let out a wet chuckle.
“No. You don’t have to call her mom.”
Sokka pulled away from the hug, and frowned. “And since she’s Fire Nation, I don’t have to be nice to her. Bato said that the Fire Nation is our enemy, making her our enemy.”
Hakoda winced. “Sokka, I doubt she’ll like being here any more than we’ll like being here, so can you at least try to be nice to her?”
Sokka shrugged. “Katara’s the nice one, so you’ll have to talk to her.”
End of Flashback…
And talk to his sister, Hakoda tried to. Sokka watched as his father spent the next two months trying to get Katara to understand the situation, that he wasn’t trying to replace her mother, and that he was only doing it for the good of the prisoners. And while initially she didn’t want to listen, eventually she did come around. If she did so on the secret promise from Sokka though that they would make their new stepmother very uncomfortable when she got here, however, well, Hakoda didn’t need to know that.
Every day, when they went fishing, or sledding, or while they were just doing chores, they’d come up with simple plans of pranks they could play on their imagined stepmother. Some involved penguin seals, and others involved freezing various possessions that they figured she would bring, like clothes. It became a great bonding experience for the two siblings, and resulted in many inside jokes, even if Hakoda tried to discourage the pranks they came up with.
Bato, of course, was no help, and even gave them ideas, much to Hakoda and Gran-Gran’s chagrin. Slowly, the plans started involving more and more people, and it wasn’t long before the entire tribe was participating. Some came up with incredibly outlandish recipes for the bride to eat, while others made up ridiculous traditions that they would tell the bride to adhere to. Small children practiced making snowballs to throw at the Fire Nation woman, and the village elders created a historical document emphasizing the history of the tribe, with the intention of making the bride learn it, making sure to detail all of the horrors her people had inflicted on their community. Sokka set up traps on the Fire Navy ship, hoping that if he left her there, she’d get stuck in one, and Katara practiced her bending to the point that she was able to dump freezing water on people.
Sokka looked back on those two years fondly as the metal ship approached the tribe, and barely recognized the ash that began falling. Hakoda looked at his reflection in his room, trying to quell the nerves rising within himself, as he prepared himself for his wedding, and Katara breathed deeply, watching the reactions of the tribe’s adults as they watched the ship come in.
The sharp front of the Navy vessel broke through the ice like a knife, and the screech of the metal as it grazed the glaciers pierced the air. Hakoda walked out of his home, and moved to stand some feet in front of the massive boat, waiting patiently for the moment in which he was to meet his future spouse. The village rallied around their chief, and Sokka and Katara stood next to their father, willing to support him, no matter what happened. As the hull opened up, and Fire Nation soldiers disembarked, everyone did their best not to flinch, the black metal armor bringing up painful memories. A single man, whom Hakoda recognized as General Iroh approached, and Hakoda walked forward to greet the man.
“General Iroh. Welcome to the South Pole.”
The older man smiled tightly, and nodded respectfully. “Chief Hakoda, it is good to see you again. You’ll forgive me for wishing it were under different circumstances.”
“I doubt we would find any other circumstance in which we would meet.” Hakoda declared, his tone clipped, and General Iroh cast a critical glance at the assembled village. Hakoda raised an eyebrow, and followed up his snipe.
“How are my men doing?”
Iroh forcefully relaxed his face, and nodded. “They are doing well. Many of them seemed to recognize where they were headed a few days ago, and are hopeful to be released. We have not told them the condition of their release though.”
“So they’re still alive then.” Hakoda said, trying not to make the phrase sound like a question.
Iroh pressed his lips together. “Yes. All seventy-three of your tribesmen are still alive, and healthy. We didn’t mistreat them as a means of torturing your people further.”
“So you’ll admit holding them captive for two years was an intentional act of misintent against my people?” Hakoda was deliberately challenging the man now, and struggling to keep the anger out of his voice.
“No more than the act of attacking cargo ships during peacetime was a slight against the Fire Nation.” Iroh responded, not able to put any heat into the words.
Hakoda scoffed internally, and stood firm, staring at General Iroh for a long moment. “Well? I suppose we should get the ceremony over with?”
Iroh was caught off guard for a moment, but recomposed himself. “Yes, of course. So, where is the groom-to-be?”
Hakoda frowned in confusion. “I don’t understand. I was under the impression that it had been agreed that I would be the one involved in the match.”
A look of shock passed over General Iroh’s face. “I…excuse me?”
A feeling of anger swelled within Hakoda. “I don’t know what kind of person you think I am General Iroh, but I do not believe in forcing others into political marriages. I wasn’t going to do that to either of my children, neither of whom are of marriageable age yet, in case you weren’t aware, leaving the only candidate, and my only choice, to be myself.”
Iroh gaped at Hakoda for a moment, before correcting his statement. “Of course. I apologize Chief Hakoda. I’m afraid I was not informed of your tribe’s choice, and it is not you whom I reject. It’s just…well, I’m not sure how to put this. Our reason for the two year deadline was not just prepare our candidate for this marriage, but also to allow them to reach the marriageable age themselves.”
A cold feeling of horror washed over Hakoda. “My bride-to-be is sixteen?”
Iroh winced. “Well, you see, my own son is the heir to the Fire Nation throne. He will have to stay in the Fire Nation capitol, and will be required to marry a Fire Nation citizen. This left the only other candidates in our immediate family to be that of my brother’s children, of whom he has two. A girl, aged thirteen, and a son, sixteen.”
There was silence between the two men, and Hakoda couldn’t find it within himself to say anything. A son. He was supposed to marry a child, barely older than his own son.
“I would offer to cancel the marriage contract, but you understand that I cannot release your people. Is this going to be a problem for you, Chief Hakoda, to marry my nephew?”
Hakoda started. “No, I…ah…I thought it was taboo in the Fire Nation, for people of the same gender to marry?”Hakoda tried desperately to cover his distaste for the scenario in which he had found himself. Marrying a child? He at least would have thought the person he would marry would be closer to his age. It had never occurred to Hakoda that that wasn’t a given, much less the expectation of a person who would identify as female.
Iroh nodded. “Yes, a custom that developed under the reign of my grandfather, Firelord Sozin. It was the result of a law that encouraged Fire Nation families to produce children capable of serving the Fire Nation, as is the responsibility of every citizen. But as we do not require a child to result in this particular arrangement, there was no issue on our side of the gender of the spouse chosen.”
Hakoda swallowed, and breathed deeply. A look of indecision crossed General Iroh’s face. “I know this cannot be easy to accept. Had I known you would be the person to whom my nephew would marry, I never would have let this happen. We would have found a different option, and you would still have gotten your people back.”
The reassurance did little to calm Hakoda, but he nodded in acknowledgement all the same. “Of course. I suppose the marriage can still go through, though, even if I am slightly uncomfortable with the concept of marrying someone so young.”
Iroh’s eyes softened in relief. Internally he reassessed his impression of Chief Hakoda, grateful that the other man’s reticence was due towards his nephew’s age. “Of course. In that case, you might as well meet him.”
Hakoda nodded, and Iroh turned, gesturing to the assembled soldiers standing in formation by the ship’s gangway. The soldiers parted, forming an aisle and revealing a lone individual, clothed in traditional black, red, and gold armor. The individual approached, and slowly walked to stand next to his uncle. Behind Hakoda, Sokka and Katara frowned at each other, trying to hear what was going on.
Iroh glanced reassuringly at his nephew, before saying “Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, may I present my nephew, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation to be your intended spouse in this arrangement to negotiate peace between our two peoples.”
As Iroh said his name, Zuko removed the helmet covering his head, revealing his face to Chief Hakoda. Unfortunately he was not able to hide his expression of fear as he met eyes with the older man upon learning that this was whom he was about to marry.
Chapter 3: A Small Ceremony
Hakoda took in the face of the teenager in front of him. Prince Zuko had sharp, thin facial features, and black hair tied up into a ponytail. His golden eyes scanned over Hakoda, trying to read his expression, and his lips parted gently in shock as he took in Hakoda’s appearance. But perhaps the most important feature that Hakoda recognized was the massive burn scar that spanned from Zuko’s nose to his ear, covering at least a third of his face.
Immediately Hakoda looked away, trying not to gawk at Zuko’s scar to avoid being rude. He nodded at General Iroh, who silently breathed a sigh of relief. Zuko would be safe here. He could stay here.
Zuko flinched, recognizing the silent acknowledgement of his scar, and felt rejection as the other man looked away. A pang of insecurity stabbed Zuko in the stomach, and he resigned himself to a lonely existence here at the South Pole. He had been warned this might happen, that even though he would be married, that didn’t mean his spouse would like him, or care about him.
Iroh cleared his throat, and asked Hakoda if there were any traditional Southen Tribe marriage customs that needed to be recognized prior to the Fire Nation ceremony. Hakoda nodded, and glanced back at his tribe, locking eyes with Bato. Bato stepped forward, and gestured for Sokka and Katara to follow him.
Hakoda turned back to Zuko and tried to offer the boy a reassuring smile. “In the Southern Water tribe, we all consider each other our family. We are all brothers, and sisters, friends, and kin. When you have need, we come your aid. When you have hope, we provide support. We are a close community, and no one is above another, and while you may not have been born here, Prince Zuko, I hope that one day, you might consider yourself a part of that community.”
Bato reached the small assembly of men, and Sokka and Katara stood on their father’s left side, frowning, and glancing between General Iroh, Zuko, and Hakoda. Hakoda nodded at Bato, who produced a small leather pouch, which he passed to Hakoda.
Emptying the pouch, Hakoda revealed the contents of the bag to be a simple necklace, made of blue cloth and a shell. Engraved on the shell was a symbol of water and the Fire Nation emblem, interwoven. It appeared to be hand-made. Zuko eyed the necklace, wondering what it’s purpose was.
“We make these betrothal necklaces to give to our intendeds as a symbol of dedication, in hopes that by wearing it, the other person declares their dedication back to us. My daughter is wearing the necklace that my mother once wore, the same one I gave to my late wife when I asked her to marry me. I give this one to you now, Prince Zuko, in the hopes of demonstrating my commitment to our union.”
Katara’s eyes widened upon realizing that it was the young teenager in front of her to whom her father was meant to marry, and her hands flew to her own necklace in shock. Sokka’s mouth hung open, re-evaluating the entire scenario he had spent the last two years building up in his head. His dad was going to marry the guy with the scar, the one who couldn’t have been much older than Sokka himself?
Zuko nodded, and Hakoda held the necklace out, waiting for Zuko to take it. His fingers trembling, Zuko lifted the piece of jewelry out of his betrothed’s hands and fixed it around his neck, making sure to tuck the straps within the collar of his armor. Iroh waited a moment to see if there was anything else, and then motioned behind him for someone else to approach.
An old man, cloaked entirely in elaborate red and gold robes hobbled forward, and began to speak, initiating the traditional script spoken at customary Fire Nation weddings. Zuko tuned the sage out, taking the opportunity to peek at the villagers behind his fiancée. It was a small community, with a few children, however it was immediately clear that the only people even remotely his age were going to be his own step-children. The thought made the feeling of bile rise in Zuko’s throat, which he had to swallow twice to erase.
Redirecting his attention back to the words of the Fire Sage, the threat of bile immediately returned upon recognizing that they were now very close to the part in which Zuko would have to actively participate. The Sage turned to Hakoda, and said “State your name sir.”
Hakoda coughed, surprised, and said “Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Do you, Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, take Prince Zuko, Son of Ozai, of the Fire Nation, to be your spouse, as previously agreed in the contract negotiating the release of political prisoners back into your tribe and maintaining a peaceful resolution to the conflict between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes?”
Hakoda stared at the Sage, not sure what to say, and looked around at Iroh and Zuko for a clue. Zuko saw his betrothed’s panic, and mouthed “I do,” hoping he would get the hint.
“Yes,” Hakoda said, relieved. “I do.”
The Sage turned to Zuko. “And do you, Zuko, Son of Ozai, Son of Azulon, Son of Sozin, Prince of the Fire Nation, take Hakoda of the Water Tribe to be your spouse, as previously agreed in the contract negotiating the release of political prisoners and providing a resolution to the conflict between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe, thus renouncing your claim to the throne?”
Hakoda swallowed a flash of guilt, having not realized Zuko would be forced to renounce his station. He reminded himself that that wasn’t his fault, and almost missed Zuko’s quiet “I do.”
The Sage, nodded, satisfied. “Then with the power vested in me by Firelord Azulon, with Agni as my witness, I declare this union legal. To conclude this ceremony, the new spouses must…”
Iroh cut the Sage off. “That particular part of the ceremony is not necessary. The match is official and I declare this wedding over.”
The Sage made to protest, but Iroh glared at him, and Zuko breathed a sigh of relief, glad to not have to kiss Chief Hakoda in front of his uncle and newly minted step-children. The Sage bowed, and returned to the ship.
Iroh turned to his nephew, and bowed slightly. “Prince Zuko, if you will excuse me for a moment. I believe there are more than a few people waiting for us to hold up the rest of the negotiation.”
Zuko froze, not ready to be left by himself, but he would not say as much. He nodded, and Iroh walked away, leaving his nephew standing alone next to his husband and step-children. An awkward silence fell upon the group, and Zuko glanced at his new husband.
“Um. Hi. My name is Zuko.” He said awkwardly, not sure what else to say.
Hakoda blinked in surprise, unused to the casual address. “I am Hakoda, I am chief of this tribe. This is my second, Bato, and my children. Sokka, my eldest, and Katara, my daughter.”
Zuko nodded at each person as they were introduced. Sokka sized up the prince, silently considering the older boy, taking note of the scar that partially disfigured his face. And then movement out of the corner of his eye caught Sokka’s attention. From within the depths of the ship, several figures walked down the gangway. And then a streak of brown and blue raced past the group, with a loud cry of “Da!”
Zuko noticed as a little girl flung herself into the arms of one of the prisoners as they disembarked, and he watch as the man broke down on his knees in relief upon being able to touch his daughter. The other prisoners started crying out for their own families, and soon enough the entire village was engaged in a tearful reunion. Zuko tilted his head slightly to the side, wishing not for the first time that his own family had been something like what he witnessed now, but quickly shook off the feeling. He could not afford to be vulnerable, not when he was about to be surrounded by enemies, no matter what Hakoda said about community.
An older woman approached the newly-wedded couple, and Bato gracefully walked off to allow Zuko a private meeting with his new family.
“Prince Zuko, this is my mother, Kana. However, everyone in the village calls her…” Hakoda started, but the woman cut him off.
“You can call me Kana.” Her tone was cold and final, as she cast a critical gaze over her new son-in-law. He was young, perhaps too young.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Zuko smiled fakely, remembering just court manners. “Please, call me Zuko. I am no prince, not anymore.”
“Hmm.” Kana hummed. “How did you get that scar on your face?” She asked bluntly.
Zuko flinched, as did Hakoda, Sokka and Katara, all though they were all curious. Zuko smiles weakly, and told her the same lie he had given anyone who ever asked. “It was a training accident, although I don’t really remember it that well. It was a couple years ago.”
“Did you forget to duck?” She asked, quietly analyzing the scar. It was still healing, but clearly had been severe at the time.
“No, uh…I was reckless and misjudged my opponent. He didn’t mean to hurt me. Like I said, it was an accident.” Zuko lamely explained, trying to cover up the truth of the incident.
“How old were you at the time?” Kana asked, discreetly trying to learn about his age and confirm her suspicions.
“I had just turned fourteen.”
“That would make you sixteen now? You’re a little younger than we expected.” Kana grunted.
Zuko smiled thinly. “And your son is a little older than I expected. After all, the only thing I was told that I was going to marry a man from the Southern Tribe.”
“At least you were given the right gender.” Hakoda joked, trying to lighten the mood.”I spent the last two years expecting a woman from the Fire Nation royal family.”
The comment earned a small uptick in the corner of Zuko’s mouth. “The only woman in the family would be my sister, and trust me, I wouldn’t wish being married to her on anyone.”
Sokka laughed. “So your sister is as bad as mine is?”
Katara scowled, and punched her brother in the shoulder. Zuko frowned, and said “Worse, probably.”
Sokka’s mouth dropped open. “So she does things worse than drop massive amounts of ice water on you?”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “One time she set her best friend’s house on fire because she felt the friend wasn’t paying enough attention to her.”
The comment gained pause from everyone, and Sokka gaped at Zuko in disbelief. “Oh, so she’s a psycho then?”
Zuko smirked. “Yeah, it’s a family trait.” Sokka stepped backwards from Zuko, a little afraid of the boy.
Turning to Katara, Zuko looked at the thirteen year old with a critical eye. “So when he said dumping water on people, does that make you a waterbender?”
Katara nodded shyly. “I…yes.”
“I didn’t know there were any Southern benders left. I’m sorry, you must be alone here?” Zuko tried to be somewhat kind, but felt he was falling flat.
“A little. Are you a firebender?” She asked, not sure how to respond.
Zuko nodded. “Probably not a great idea when surrounded by ice.”
Before anyone could say anything else, Iroh returned, and Zuko was a little glad to be back in the company of his uncle. But the look on his face told Zuko that he was running out of time.
“Prince Zuko. The captain tells me that we will need to cast off soon. You should come get your things before we leave. I would also like to discuss something with you privately before I go.”
Following his uncle back into the ship unsettled Zuko, but he did anyways, glancing briefly back at his new family before boarding the Fire Nation ship for perhaps what would be his last time.
Chapter 4: A Mutual Agreement
Moments later, even though it felt like hours, Zuko found himself being led by Katara to the ice hut that the family shared. It was modest, compared to the palace rooms he had been used to, but cozy, and warm. The circular room allowed for little privacy, and pallets of fur and pillows were organized in the corner. Traditional tools and weapons adorned the walls, as well as tapestries and pelts. A small kitchen area sat on the other side, and various windows allowed for natural light, giving the room a comfortable feel. One of the pallets was clearly set up for him though, as everything was specifically dyed Fire Nation red in contrast to the blue tones of everything else in the room. It was comforting to him that he would have his own place, even if he wasn't allowed to use it much.
Katara watched the older boy take in the space, clearly waiting to see judgement, but found none. He clearly was not what she expected, however the royal snobbish mannerisms she had imagined were absent entirely. He hadn't given her any orders, or made unreasonable demands. He hadn't asked for anything, not even a coat, even though he must've been freezing. She waited for Zuko to put his bag down before speaking, not used to his quiet demeanor. “Look, you probably don’t want to be here any more than we want you here, but my dad means it when he said we’re a close community. We’re very protective of each other, and it took a long time for us to get used to the idea that my dad would be forced to marry again. Even more so that he would have to marry...”
“Someone from the Fire Nation?” Zuko cut her off, making eye contact with Katara. “I figured. Our people have a long-standing rivalry, that goes much deeper than the war. Fire and water are total opposites, I wasn’t exactly expecting a warm welcome when I got to the South Pole.”
Frustration swelled up in Katara, and she was briefly reminded that she hadn’t planned on being nice in the first place, so why was she trying to do it now? “Why would you? You represent one of the worst parts of our history, and your own grandfather is the reason this marriage of your happened at all. If the Fire Nation hadn’t decided to kill or capture all of the Waterbenders, my mother wouldn’t be gone and you wouldn’t be here.”
Zuko flinched. “Your mother was killed by raiders?” His voice was soft and sad.
Katara nodded, charging on. “Yes. She was. And this necklace I’m wearing is the only thing we have left of her.”
“At least you have that.” Zuko muttered, and Katara’s eyes narrowed.
“Excuse me?” She blurted out.
Zuko’s eyes widened, realizing she’d heard him. He tried to cover his comment, but quickly realized that nothing he came up with would appease her, except...maybe the truth?
“My mother disappeared shortly before I was told of the engagement. One day she was there, gone the next. No one in the palace knew where she had gone, and my father would never tell me why she left. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. And I have nothing left of her. But this marriage, the negotiation is part of the reason, so I guess you could say that your father is part of the reason my mother is gone too.” Zuko snapped towards the end of his speech, and Katara recoiled.
“I...I’m sorry. I didn’t k...” She stuttered, tears welling up in her eyes, and Zuko slouched, a guilty look on his face.
“No. I...I’m sorry. I don’t mean that. You’re right, the war the Fire Nation waged caused a lot of damage, and back home we’re told it’s done more good than bad. The war effort has been woven so much into our culture that it's become the only thing that we know, that fighting is necessary in order to be Fire Nation. That’s the only thing that’s justified such a long fight, and we often refuse to take responsibility for the fallout. I don’t blame your father for what happened to my family, but you’re right to blame my family for what happened to yours. And I’m sorry I snapped at you. You don’t know me very well, and I don’t want to start things off like this, especially since you were kind enough to let me into your home.”
The apology gave Katara pause, and she looked at her step-father, and wow was it weird to think of him that way, thoughtfully. “Thank you, for your apology. But I should apologize. You weren’t personally responsible. It's just, for a long time, I had this idea of the Fire Nation in my head, an army of faceless soldiers I could blame. But then you arrived, and...the image in my head changed. All of a sudden, the soldiers had a face. Your face.”
Zuko’s fingers lightly brushed his own cheek, meeting the edge of his scar, bur Katara continued. “You represented a target for me to take my anger at your country, at this war, at this situation out on, and that’s not fair. I’m sorry.”
Zuko nodded. “I...thank you. This is going to take some getting used to. But I’d like for us to be...” Zuko stopped himself before saying the word that came to mind. Friends. He wasn’t here to make friends. He was here out of a duty to his country, and he couldn’t afford to get close to her in that way when he had a responsibility to fulfill...could he?
Katara smiled, inferring what he was about to say. “Let’s just start off with acquaintances. I have some chores to finish, so I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes to get settled in. That ship you arrived in is probably going to start moving any minute, which will cause the ground to shake, just a fair warning. My brother will probably be along soon, he’s going to introduce you to some of the responsibilities you’ll have now that you’re here. If you need anything...”
She trailed off, and walked out of the hut backwards, leaving Zuko totally alone for the first time in days. She pulled the curtain covering the entrance closed, but stayed outside to peek at the prince. She watched as he ran his fingers over the plush pallet, and began removing his armor, leaving on only a thin layer of black clothes. She could see the bright blue of the engagement necklace around his neck, which he left on. Just as she was about to leave, Zuko removed just hair from the ponytail that it had been tightly kept in, letting his hair, which fell neatly just below his jaw, before drawing it back slowly into a short wolftail, closer to the base of his skull, stlying the hair to be more similar of a Water Tribe hairstyle, and tied it with a white ribbon that he pulled out of his bag. It didn't occur to her until much later that he no longer wore any of the Fire Nation emblems or symbols outside of his necklace, although she would never ask why.
Katara left to go finish rinsing the clothes that she had been washing, thinking to herself that Zuko would take a lot of getting used to, but wondered for the first time if perhaps that wasn't a bad thing.
Back in the hut, Zuko was still thinking about the conversation he had had with his uncle while collecting his things, as Katara walked away, and he lost himself in the memory briefly.
“I wish I could stay here with you. I do not like the idea of you being here by yourself Prince Zuko.” Iroh lamented, as the two walked down the corridor to Zuko’s suite.
Zuko grimaced. “Uncle, please. I just renounced my royal title. I’m not a prince anymore.” He didn't say that when he realized he would have to renounce his claim to the throne, Azula had cartwheeled around the palace gardens for hours. His father had been happy to share that information with everyone, no matter their rank.
Iroh scoffed. “You were born in a palace. You were raised by royalty. You carry the responsibility of bringing peace between our two nations, which is the duty of a prince. You will always be a prince, Zuko. Never forget that.”
Zuko mulled over his uncle’s words. “I won’t. But I think I’m okay with you dropping the title any time you say my name. We're not at court anymore, and the formality just seems pointless now."
Iroh smiled, and said “Very well, Zuko.” But then Iroh’s smile fell away, “I must warn you. I do not think it was a coincidence that we were uninformed of your fiancée's identity. The Water Tribes would have had no reason to hide that from us. They got more out of the negotiation than we did. I believe that must mean that whoever was aware of it, made the decision to keep that a secret on our end."
Zuko nodded. “You’re right. Do you think my father...” The accusation went unsaid, as Zuko still could not accept that his father hated him so much to force this kind of humiliation on him.
Iroh scowled. “I would not put it past my brother. I am sorry, Pri...Zuko. This can not be easy to accept, even though I do believe Chief Hakoda is a good man. He will treat you well.”
Zuko thought about his husband, and the frown on his face smoothed slightly. “He seems kind. The look on his face when those families reunited on the dock...he truly cares about his people, he was happy and relieved to see them. I wish I saw that look on my grandfather’s face.”
Iroh smiled bitterly. “You know, he used to look at my mother that way. Your grandmother, Fire Lady Ilah, was one of the few people who could make him smile. Not that he deserved her by any means, but she did make him happy.”
Zuko listened carefully, surprised to hear his uncle talk about his own mother. Fire Lady Illah was not mentioned often, but there had been rumors that despite the marriage between his grandparents being arranged, she and his grandfather had intended to marry anyways. That theirs was a love marriage, rather than one of convenience.
“Forgive me Uncle. What happened to her? I don’t recall knowing how she passed.”
“She died of illness when your father was very young. I am significantly older than my brother, if you didn't realize, so I remember her better than he ever would have. I suspect it was a result of an illness that she contracted while pregnant with him, and that it was only a matter of time. After that, Firelord Azulon withdrew from both your father and I, and I was nearly old enough to serve, leaving our emotionally-cut-off father as the only family Ozai had. Until his own children were born.”
Zuko noticed Iroh’s deliberate exclusion of Ursa from being considered part of Ozai’s family, recognizing that there was something Iroh knew about his parents’ relationship that Zuko did not. Bitterly, Zuko drew parallels between his own family and his father’s, reminded briefly again of his sister.
“My sister will be just like him, won’t she?” Zuko spat out bitterly, anger fueling him slightly. The relationship between the two had been deteriorating for years, and had only gotten worse since their mother's disappearance. Azula had been more than happy to see Zuko go, even though she couldn't be bothered to come to the bay when the ship cast off. Neither had his father.
Iroh closed his eyes, and sighed. “Your sister is a talented firebender, reserved, cunning, and intelligent. But she had lacked the ability to empathize with people for a long time, and has a deep-seated desire to impress your father. I believe this comes from her own position in the family, as the only female grandchild of Firelord Azulon. She had no wish to be underestimated, so she fought tooth and nail to become what she is, sacrificing vital parts of her development to do so. That doesn’t mean she is lost. It just means she needs to find out who else she could be outside of your father.”
They reached Zuko’s room, which was already bare as a result of the packing Zuko had done the night prior. All of the possessions that Zuko had brought with him were tucked into his bag, including the dual broadswords that he treasured, the Earth Kingdom knife his uncle had given him, and portraits of his mother, uncle, and cousin. One of Mai's knives was also tucked in the bottom, although Zuko did not wish to consider why many of his prized possessions were weapons.
Picking up the bag, Zuko turned back to his uncle, not sure what else to say, only to have something shoved into his arms. Looking at it, Zuko could see that he was now holding a clutch of scrolls. Bending form scrolls.
“Uncle, what...I? I won’t need these?” It was true. Zuko was under explicit orders from every politician involved in the marriage negotiation that he would not be allowed to bend once he reached the South Pole, to avoid risking the treaty.
Iroh scoffed, and rolled his eyes. “Telling a Firebender not to bend is like telling a fish not to swim, Zuko. You should keep up with your training, even if a teacher cannot be there for you. Practice, learn, and reflect. You shouldn’t cut yourself off from using your element, no matter how far away you feel from it. And besides. You are the only person who would have those scrolls, given that I made them myself.”
Zuko’s eyes widened. “You made your own bending scrolls? Uncle...I can’t take these! You should give them to Lu Ten! These are a family heirloom!”
“Nonsense. Lu Ten is a competent bender who will have no need of these, not as crown prince, not as Firelord. Now, each scroll has its own unique history from when I travelled the world as a General, and I hope one day you will take the time to read them. This one in particular...oof!”
Iroh meant to launch into a story, only for Zuko to quickly set down the scrolls and hug his uncle. “Thank you Uncle. I will make sure to do so!”
Iroh wrapped his arms around his nephew, realizing that they would have to say goodbye soon. “Your cousin and I are expecting to come and visit in a year to check in on the progress of the treaty...I hope that...” Iroh found himself at a loss of words all of a sudden, realizing that he didn’t know what to say to his nephew.
“Zuko. I hope you know, that despite your father...I have always thought of you as one of...”
“Uncle, please. If you finish that sentence, I will never be able to let go. But yes, I know. And I as well.” Zuko pulled away, and packed the scrolls into his bag. “Thank you, for the scrolls. And everything else. I...I will miss you. Please give my regards to everyone at home, and tell them...tell them that I am honored to do this for my country.” Zuko’s voice cracked, but he did his best to give his uncle a façade of sincerity. “Goodbye Uncle.”
Iroh nodded, and Zuko smiled one last time, before walking out the door, and back down the hallway, alone. Iroh watched the teenager go, and whispered to himself. “Goodbye, Prince Zuko.”
End of Flashback...
A sharp knock on the outside of the house brought Zuko out of thoughts, and he turned around to see Hakoda standing in the doorway.
“Chief Hadoka!” Zuko was surprised, not having expected his husband. “I...come in. Well, this is your home, you don’t really need my permission, but...uh...Yes? Can I help you?”
The chief chuckled, and walked over the threshold. “Please, Zuko, call me Hakoda. I’m not really one for formalities. And yes. I would like to speak with you about this whole marriage...thing.” Hakoda finished lamely, but Zuko did not react, so he continued.
“I’m not sure what you’ve been told, or ordered to do in order to maintain the image of a successful marriage. I know it is traditional in Fire Nation weddings to end the ceremony with a kiss, and I couldn't help but be thankful that your uncle prevented that as I...I am not interested in going any further with you in a romantic context.”
Zuko flinched. “I was told that we would have to share intercourse at least once, and that on official visits, evidence of a healthy relationship would have to be presented...”
“We’ll come to that later, but I am not comfortable with the concept of intercourse. At all.”
Zuko was confused. Hakoda had children. He had been married before. He must have been involved in...oh. It was then that Zuko realized what Hakoda was saying. “You mean, you’re not interested in having intercourse with me.” Zuko’s voice was empty, but feeble, and the small pang of rejection returned.
Hakoda nodded, and sighed. “Zuko, I...you are too young for me. You’re barely older than my son, and I would never even consider having intercourse with someone your age. I don’t think that is appropriate, and more so, I think anyone who would try, is taking advantage of the minor.”
“Advantage?” Zuko frowned.
Hakoda could see that what he was trying to express was not clear. “Zuko, you’re a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re very brave for agreeing to go through with this, but you’re not an adult. You can’t consent in a way that would put us on an equal level, and I don’t know you even remotely well enough to want anything between us in that sort of way.”
Zuko exhaled in surprise. “Oh. So you aren’t expecting me to fulfill any...marital duties? At all? And it's not because I'm male, or Fire Nation?”
Hakoda shook his head. “No, I am not. I don't have any problem with your gender, in fact I think that makes this slightly easier. And I would be saying this regardless if you were Fire Nation, or from anywhere else. I do realize that for appearances sake, in front of anyone from your Nation, that might have to change, but we can discuss that and be prepared, but do you have any concerns about not being together in that way?”
Zuko bit his lip, and looked around. “One. For the most part, I was told that effectively, my job is to keep your bed warm. I can’t give you children, and your own are grown enough that I don’t need to raise them. I wouldn't be expected to run your tribe in your absence, so without the sexual element, or even the romantic element of our relationship, what would I be expected to do here?”
Hakoda bowed his head, thinking for a moment. “Like I said earlier, we are a community, a family. I do consider you part of my family now, so you will be expected to participate in our community like everyone else. Hunting, fishing, protection, and maintaining the village. Helping our neighbors, and being a friend to those around you. That’s all anyone can ask of you. Is that alright?”
A sense of relief washed over Zuko, allowing much of the anxiety he had held over this situation to fade away. Hakoda didn't want him, didn't need him, but didn't want to exclude him either. It was almost like Zuko was being fostered by the Water Tribe, rather than marrying into it. "You're not planning to make me leave?"
Hakoda froze, having never considered that Zuko would think that he would make him go. "No. No. Never. Unless you plan on hurting someone, or, I don't know, wage a one-man war against our tribe, no. You belong with us now, and we'll expect you to act like it. Can you do that?"
“I...can do that.' Zuko paused for a moment before continuing. "Although I must confess, I’ve never hunted before.”
Hakoda laughed. “Well, it’s never too late to learn. Come on, I want to introduce you to the rest of the village.”
And if Zuko left the hut, walking next to his husband, feeling more comfortable than he had in years, well, no one needed to know that just yet.
As it would turn out, meeting the rest of the village would not take very long, given that of the small tribe, maybe only thirty of them hadn’t been on a ship with him for the past two months. The prisoners eyed Zuko with distrust, however Hakoda made sure to emphasize that Zuko was welcome, something that Zuko was grateful for.
Kana toured around with them, although he learned very quickly that she was not one for polite conversation. She did not reveal much about herself, and reminded Zuko very much of Mai. Meeting the village children was the most unusual experience for Zuko, who had never been around so many younglings before. Some were initially frightened of him, and others were curious. One in particular was interested in Zuko’s hands.
“You’re very warm.” She said. “Are you sick? My brother was sick and he was really warm.”
Zuko shook his head. “No. I’m just warm naturally. I’m not sick.”
“Good.” The child said. “I don’t like it when people are sick. That means they can’t play. But if you are not sick, you can play.”
Play? Zuko panicked. He didn’t want to play. Unfortunately, just like everything else in his life recently, Zuko did not get what he wanted, and was soon dragged into a game the children called whirlpool.
The rules were very simple. The children formed a circle around one person in the middle, and the person in the middle was supposed to turn in place. The children ran in the direction counter to the person turning, and counted. The person in the middle stopped when the children reached zero, and the children stopped running. Whomever the person in the middle was facing once they stopped was out, making it a game of chance. Zuko thought that it was a good way to get dizzy.
Hakoda watched as Zuko played with the children, along with the other adults, when Sokka came running up to him. “Hey Dad, have you seen…oh, there he is.” Sokka noticed Zuko who was spinning quite fast as the children ran around him.
“Sokka, were you looking for Zuko?” Hakoda asked. “I was introducing him to some of the villagers.”
“I can…uh, see that. He…he was not what you were expecting, huh?” Sokka commented.
“Definitely not.” Hakoda deadpanned.
“He’s not what I imagined someone from the Fire Nation would be like.”
“Oh?” Hakoda asked, an eyebrow raised. “What did you imagine?”
“I don’t know. Angry. Mean. Evil. Pointy.”
“Pointy?” Hakoda repeated, amused.
“Yeah. I mean, have you seen their armor? Pointy, just like their shoes.” Sokka gestured to the boots that Zuko was wearing, which indeed had the toe curved up into a point. Hakoda snorted.
“But Zuko seems…not like that. Sure, he snapped at Katara, but she said he apologized immediately.”
Hakoda glanced at his husband, not having realized that he had already spoken to his daughter. “What happened?”
Sokka winced. “She said that she blamed him for mom’s death, and he turned around and blamed you for his mom’s disappearance. But then he rolled it back, saying it wasn’t your fault, and he shouldn’t have said that or something.”
“His mother disappeared?” Hakoda looked back at Zuko. “I didn’t know about that.”
“He said he thought it was because of the engagement.” Sokka elaborated. The others standing nearby, eavesdropping gasped softly, sympathy growing for the young Firebender.
Hakoda thought back to Zuko’s relief earlier at learning he wouldn’t be exiled from the tribe. “I told him that I didn’t want ours to be a traditional marriage, that we wouldn’t have a romantic relationship. He was worried that I was going to kick him out, exile him or something.”
“Abandonment issues.” Kana interrupted. Hakoda looked at his mother. “That boy is a skin filled with issues, abandonment and emotional neglect too. And I know my burns. That kind of scar is only caused by close range exposure to an open flame. That was no accident. Not when it looks like an open palm.”
Horror filled Hakoda and Sokka. “You mean, someone did that to him on purpose?” Sokka whispered.
“It wouldn’t surprise me.” Kana grunted.
They watched as Zuko tried to stop spinning, and suddenly slipped on the ice. The children laughed at him, and Sokka could see pink dusting the older boy’s face as he stood back up. Zuko turned, and asked the children who he had been facing before he fell, but clearly the honor code did not apply. Each child pointed at a different person, and Zuko shook his head, knowing they would not give him an easy answer.
“Why don’t we just try again? And I try not to fall this time?” Zuko asked, and the children cheered.
Hakoda smiled. “You know, he has a sister that is the same age as Katara?”
Sokka nodded. “Yeah, he said. The psycho.”
Hakoda laughed, remembering now the conversation that had taken place after the wedding. “He seemed close to his uncle, who was much different from what I expected as well when I first met him.”
“The old guy? Why, what were you expecting from him?” Sokka asked, curious.
“Prince Iroh, an acclaimed general of the Fire Nation Army, so called the Dragon of the West. He was the one who led the assault and laid siege to Ba Sing Se. A brilliant tactician, and a phenomenal bender, the man has a reputation.”
“Wow.” Sokka’s eyes widened. “That guy? The old fat guy? I guess looks really are deceiving, huh?”
They continued to watch as Zuko stopped spinning again, and this time successfully eliminated a child from the circle. The child stepped out, and the gap in the circle closed, and the children started running again, and Zuko sighed before starting to turn in place again.
“Do you ever get dizzy watching them play that?” Hakoda wondered aloud.
“No.” Sokka responded. “I think this is the first time they’ve played this game in two years when I haven’t been the person in the middle.”
Hakoda was briefly reminded that next to Zuko, there was almost no one else in the tribe close to Zuko’s age. When Hakoda sailed off two years ago, then-thirteen year old Sokka had been too young to come with them, leaving him the unfortunate oldest male in the tribe while they were gone.
The youngest of the former prisoners had been fifteen when they left, only two years older than Sokka, but prison had not been kind to him, or any of the others. While the physical age gap didn’t change, the prisoners did age mentally, and developed a solidarity with each other, further isolating Sokka from the other men in the tribe. It was one of the many things Hakoda felt guilty about, robbing his son of friends his own age.
“Y’know, Sokka. Since Zuko’s going to be staying with us, we’re going to need his help on several of the chores around the village. He admitted to me earlier that he doesn’t really know how to hunt. Maybe you, Bato and I could take him sometime, and show him the ropes?”
Sokka perked up, eager at the idea. “Yeah. And maybe we could take him ice-dodging too. He’s old enough?”
Hakoda hummed thoughtfully. “You know what, Sokka? That’s a great idea. The ice should be in the perfect position on the coast because of the ship leaving. Tomorrow, let’s take one of the boats out, we can even bring your sister along.”
Sokka grinned, excited at the concept. He remembered his own time ice-dodging, his dad took him last year. Bato had been there as well, and Katara had sat by the bow of the ship, watching intensely. It had been really fun, and Sokka was sure Zuko would enjoy the experience too.
The next morning, Zuko found himself being shaken awake. The sky was still dark out and a flash of fear ran through Zuko that Hakoda wanted something from him after all. But it was Sokka jostling him.
“C’mon. Get up. Let’s go!” The younger boy whispered, gesturing excitedly towards the door.
Zuko rubbed his eyes and frowned. “Sokka? What’s going on?”
The young tribesman grinned at his stepfather. “My dad and I were talking yesterday, and we thought we’d show you a tradition we do here, that you’d get to participate in. I can’t really tell you more, that’ll ruin the surprise. Now get up, get ready.”
Zuko did get up, although his body protested. “It’s still dark outside?”
Sokka looked at him like he was crazy. “It’s the South Pole. It’s almost always dark outside. The sun won’t rise for another couple of hours.”
Zuko blinked, having never considered that aspect of where he was now living. “Oh. That’s…different.”
Sokka frowned. “How so?”
Zuko stood up and stretched, and Sokka sat on the floor of the hut, watching the older boy wake up. “In the Fire Nation, the days are long, and the sun rises early. And Firebenders rise with the sun. We don’t sleep very much, the exposure to our element invigorates us. The same with Waterbenders and the moon. But if the Sun doesn’t rise as long here, I expect I will sleep more than I would have back in the Fire Nation.”
“Oh.” Sokka blinked. “That’s cool. I…uh, didn’t know that. Are you ready?”
Zuko pulled on his pointy boots, and ran his fingers through his hair, retying it into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck. He nodded at Sokka, who then scrambled to his feet, and rushed out the door, Zuko following slowly behind.
The prince was surprised to see many of the villagers awake and already moving around, and Zuko could see Kana and Katara already tending to a pile of fish, getting rid of the bones and scales. Animal fat candles were everywhere, lighting up the village as they waited for the sun to rise.
Sokka led him away from the main encampment, and closer to the docks, where Zuko could see Hakoda and Bato working on a single ship. As the two boys walked closer, Bato recognized the, and pointed out to Hakoda that they had company. Hakoda smiled, and greeted the teenagers.
“Good morning Sokka, and Zuko. I imagine you probably have some questions, providing that my son hasn’t yet spilled the beans?”
Zuko shook his head. “He just said something about a surprise tradition. I don’t really know what we’re going.”
“Good,” Hakoda clapped just hands together. “In that case, allow me to explain. In our culture, our lives are intrinsically tied to that of the ice and the water. Snow gives us shelter, ice gives us land, and the sea gives us food. Our entire way of living is linked to the environment around us, and so, as you can imagine, we have to learn how to work with that environment. Sailing is important to us, however in this landscape, the changing formations of ice can often trap ships and put lives in danger. It is the duty of a leader to be able to avoid scenarios like this, or get out of them, therefore this ceremony, which we call ice-dodging, is a rite of passage for young men in our tribe to test their wisdom, bravery, and show trust in their crew while expecting it themselves. Today, you will be performing the ceremony, with Sokka, Bato, and myself as your crew. But first, let me show you how this all works so you have a basic understanding of what you’re doing.”
As Hakoda explained the mechanisms of the ship, with various commentary from Sokka, Zuko began to gain a basic understanding of the concept. There were two sails, the mainsail and the jib. Controlling the sails meant controlling their speed, and made steering easier. Steering the ship was done by rotating the rudder, attached to the back, or the stern of the ship. The crew’s job was to make sure the ropes connected to the sails were either tight enough or slack enough to maintain their speed and direction, while fighting winds and sea currents. And of course, the main objective was not to get trapped by the ice or run aground on a glacier. By the time Zuko was comfortable steering, and had a good enough understanding of sailing, the sun had started to rise in the sky, giving him a warm feeling deep within his chest.
Hakoda smiled at him, and then went to go sit on the bow of the ship. “Now we begin the test. For this part, Zuko, I can’t help you, but if you trust in your crew, and in yourself, you will not steer us wrong. Good luck!”
Ziuko looked out at the ocean in front of him, a debris field littered with sharp icebergs. The wind on the water started picking up, and the waves began to rise. Slightly daunted, Zuko exhaled softly and nodded. He ordered Sokka to take control of the mainsail, and Bato the job, figuring that the boon of the mainsail would swing around, causing someone to need to duck a lot. The two got into place, and Bato pulled his rope taunt, flattening the sheet. The ship started picking up speed, and Zuko adjusted the rudder arm to correct their course, avoiding a small outcropping of ice. More obstacles came into their path, and Zuko told Bato to slacken the rope, slowing them down long enough for the ship to neatly weave amongst them. Sokka grinned at Zuko, who smiled back briefly, before returning his gaze to the ocean. A large glacier drifted quickly towards them, and Zuko frowned, worried about the ice that might be underwater. He navigated quickly away from the iceberg, but then realized he had made a mistake.
By correcting the course away from one obstacle, he had inadvertently sailed them into the path of another. Two large icebergs were on a collision course with each other, and there was no way to sail around them in time. In order to avoid them…he would have to sail between. Rapidly, Zuko ordered both Bato and Sokka to pull the sails tight, and help them pick up speed, knowing he would have to move quickly to avoid being smashed flat by the ice. Sokka eyed his dad, worried, but Hakoda looked at Zuko in confidence.
As the icebergs started to collide, the water tribe ship neatly scraped through the gap, suddenly finding itself in open ocean. They had made it, Zuko had passed.
Hakoda and Bato both clapped, and Sokka cheered. Zuko smiled, feeling a small flash of accomplishment run through him. They quickly sailed back to shore, and found Katara waiting for them on the dock. She took in their faces, and smiled brightly at Zuko, congratulating him on the achievement.
“Well done! You’re officially honorary Water Tribe now!” She said, prompting a small smile from Zuko.
“Thank you.” Zuko responded, not sure what to do next. The sun was now fully up, and he could see the tribe children playing in the snow.
“Zuko,” Hakoda called out. “A moment please.”
Zuko turned back to his husband, who was now holding a small bowl. “Marks are given to those who complete this test as a way of demonstrating which quality they best possessed during the trial. You trusted your crew, and yourself to get through a situation that could have gone very differently and it worked. Therefore I give you the mark of the trusted. This is a good quality to have, and I hope you will embody it throughout your time here. Good work.”
Hakoda dipped his thumb in the black liquid the bowl contained, and swiped it across Zuko’s forehead, leaving a shallow arc curved above his brow. Zuko nodded, grateful for Hakoda’s words, and Sokka rocked back and forth on his heels. Bato clapped Zuko on the shoulder, and nodded to Hakoda, before walking off, and Hakoda nodded to Sokka before also making to leave.
“I have some duties to attend to, but I believe my children have already planned out your day in order to get you familiar with some of the chores we’re going to ask you to do. Is that alright?” Hakoda asked, and Zuko nodded.
“Yes, that’s’s fine. Thank you Ch…Hakoda.” Zuko nearly slipped, calling the man by his title, however he dropped the formality in time, and Hakoda’s mouth twitched into a smile.
“C’mon. Lots to do today!” Sokka grabbed Zuko’s arm, dragging him off the ship, towards a rowboat.
“Like what?” Zuko asked.
“Fishing!” Sokka cheered. Internally, Zuko groaned. It was going to be a long day.
Thank you to everyone who has commented so far, I was really surprised that you guys seemed to love this concept! Please keep leaving kudos and commenting, they really do make a difference, I hope you liked this chapter, and I will see y’all next time!
Chapter 6: Learning the Basics
Zuko had no patience for fishing, which of course made him terrible at it. Sokka had been incredibly disappointed to learn this, but had initially held out hope that the Firebender would get better at it. That...didn’t happen.
What Zuko did prove to be very good at however, was teaching. A week after the prince had arrived, Sokka had caught the older boy practicing with dual swords out on the flat tundra outside the village. He had been fascinating to watch, and by the time Zuko realized someone was looking at him, he had quite the audience. Half of the village saw the young prince twirl the metal weapons through the air, slicing and cutting with choreographed precision. The blades glinted in the dawn’s light, reflecting both the sun and the snow, making bright flashes reflect the sun’s rays into their eyes, but no one dared look away.
Hakoda was impressed. He hadn’t expected the boy to be a skilled swordsman, as it wasn’t common for firebenders to learn a means of defense outside of their element. Speaking of firebending , Hakoda realized he had never seen Zuko use his abilities, making him wonder why.
Zuko sheathed the swords upon spotting the prying eyes of the townspeople, and walked back towards the village, unwilling to discuss what they had just seen. Sokka didn’t really care though, and dashed after him, begging Zuko to teach him how to use swords.
Almost an hour of pleading from Sokka finally won Zuko over, who shortly nodded, and Sokka punched the air with both fists. The next day, Zuko brought Sokka back to the spot where he had been practicing, and Sokka stood there, practically vibrating. The rapid movement stopped very quickly when Zuko gave him a knife instead.
“Uh, Zuko? This is a knife, not a sword.” Sokka pointed out, confused.
Zuko sighed, and nodded. “Yes it is. I know that you have a machete, which you use on a frequent basis, but if you’re going to learn the basics of swordsmanship, you’re first going to learn about blades in general, and how to consider them in a combat setting.”
It was then that Sokka remembered that while his stepfather had been a prince, he had still been in the military, and started to regret asking for these lessons slightly. “Okay, so, blade. Knife. Check. Now what?”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “You can start by removing the sheath on the knife.”
“Oh,” Sokka said, feeling dumb. “Right.” He slid the blade out from the cover, revealing the yellow Earth Kingdom insignia and the engraving on the smooth metal. “This is from the Earth Kingdom.”
Zuko nodded. “Yes. My uncle was given that knife from the general that surrendered when he laid siege to Ba Sing Se. He gave it to me shortly after, when it was declared that the Fire Nation won the war.”
Sokka marveled at the blade, reveling in the history of the weapon he now held. “Wow. What does the writing mean?”
“It means never give up without a fight.” Zuko whispered, and Sokka mouthed the words back.
“Why put that on a knife?” Sokka asked, and Zuko nodded.
“Part of being a great fighter is always being aware of your odds, your chances, and your resources. Factors in your environment affect you just as much as your opponent, and if you use that against them, you always have a fighting chance. The knife is part of your environment just as much as the ground underneath your feet. Many soldiers often forget that a knife can be a useful weapon in a combat scenario when their bending has been counteracted, and that you can still use it to turn the tide in your favor.”
“Wow. That makes sense.” Sokka said.
“Good.” Zuko smirked, and drew his own swords, shifting into a fighting stance. Sokka stepped backwards, allowing his arms to drop to his sides, his grip on the knife going lax.
“Uh, Zuko? You’re not expecting me to fight you, you holding those, with me holding this, right?”
Zuko shook his head, and shifted his feet again, leaving them slightly spread apart, and allowed his arms to fall, letting the tips of the swords scrape the ground. “No. That was a test of your instincts. One that you failed. In order to be truly aware of your environment, you must consider what might change to become a threat in a moment’s notice, and react accordingly. You flinched, and let your guard down. Had I actually attacked you, you would have been easily dispatched .”
Sokka looked at the ground, disappointed. Zuko took pity on the boy, and kept talking. “That’s alright. Being aware of your surroundings is something that takes time to develop. Think of it like the ice field out on the ocean last week? The icebergs are constantly moving, and you have to think quickly to maneuver around them. You look, you plan, you learn, you respond. The same concept applies just as much to a battlefield as an obstacle course. Does that make sense?”
Sokka nodded, feeling better. Zuko sheathed his swords and patted his stepson’s shoulder. “Good. That’s lesson one. Practice being aware of your surroundings, and using your resources, and next week, we’ll have another lesson. Now, I believe we both have chores to get done.”
Sokka re-sheathed the knife, and made to hand it back, but Zuko didn’t take it. “No. While I’m teaching you, you can keep that.”
Sokka smiled at him, and Zuko nodded, leading them both back to the village. It took two months for Zuko to teach Sokka everything he knew about swordfighting , and he even let Sokka use his broadswords, even if the younger boy was slightly sloppy.
It was nearly three months after Zuko arrived that Katara too realized she had never seen him bend. As the only other bender around, that intrigued her, and one day, she built up the courage to ask.
“Hey Zuko!” She walked up to him, hands clasped behind her back. Zuko was transferring water into molds to pack ice in to make bricks for building purposes, and he looked up at her with an eyebrow raised.
“Hi Katara. What’s up?” He could tell that she wanted something, her entire body language projected it.
“I have a question for you. Well, actually, a few questions, but the first one is the most important, if you don’t mind answering...”
There were very few times that Katara reminded Zuko of her brother, but this was one of them. They both had a tendency to ramble when they were distracted, and easy to antagonize. Knowing that this could go on a while, Zuko held up a hand, stopping her.
“Of course. Ask away.”
Katara bit her lip, suddenly unsure how to phrase her question. But she was too excited to give it much consideration.
“Why don’t you firebend ?” She blurted out, rendering Zuko speechless.
“What?” Zuko chuckled, not sure he’d heard her right.
Katara wilted slightly, feeling silly. “Well, uh...I never see you firebend . No one has. But you said you were a firebender . So uh, why don’t you firebend?”
Zuko started to understand, and smiled at her. “Oh. I see. Well, I am a firebender , and I do firebend . But maybe you don’t recognize it when I do?” He held out a hand to her, and she took it, feeling his skin, which was indeed very warm.
“In case you didn’t notice, I’m used to a very warm climate, and moving here was a little bit of a shock, so I use my bending to regulate my body temperature and keep myself warm.”
Katara’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Oh! Wow, you can do that?”
Zuko nodded. “But as for bigger displays of firebending, well, I use it to light the candles in the morning, but don’t tell Kana. She insists I use the flint and steel. Anything else I worry would make people uncomfortable, and I don’t want to do that.”
Katara nodded. That made sense. “Yeah, Gran-Gran would insist on that kind of thing. She’s very traditional that way.” Katara bit her lip, and Zuko remembered that she had other questions. He waited for her to say something else, at which she did not disappoint .
“Can you teach me?”
Zuko paused, confused. “Can I teach...you...firebending?”
Katara shook her head. “Well, not firebending , but I’m a waterbender . They’re both types of bending, maybe they have similar concepts?”
Zuko felt unsure, and shook his head. “I don’t think it works like that. The way we control our elements is very different, I don’t think...” Zuko trailed off, remembering the scrolls his uncle had given him. Katara perked up, noticing that Zuko appeared to be thinking about something.
He stood up suddenly, and told her to wait there, dashing back to the family hut. His bag was now placed in the corner of the room, and Zuko pulled out the scrolls quickly. One in particular, and the inscription his uncle had left on it might be useful to Katara.
Grabbing the right scroll, he repacked the others and ran back to her, the scroll clutched in his hand. She looked back and forth between the scroll and him, unsure of what he was showing her. Zuko sat cross-legged on the snow, placing the scroll on his lap, and gestured for Katara to sit too.
She did, leaving about a foot of space between them. “Okay,” Zuko began, taking a breath. “I’m not sure how well this will apply to you, but since you’ve never really had a teacher, I think this might be useful to know at the very least. Let’s start with the four elements, Fire, Air, Water, Earth.”
Zuko traced the symbols in the snow. “The elements are linked to energy, and we can feel that energy in our bodies. Bending comes from humans gaining the ability to direct that chi, and their corresponding element responds. People in the Fire Nation bend fire. People in the Water Tribes bend water, and so on. Now, not everyone can do it, but those that can, can usually only bend one element. We don’t really know why this is, but it is possible that it is because we separated ourselves based on the element that we could bend, forming the four nations. The Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, and the Air Temples. Or at least, that’s what my uncle told me.”
Katara listened intently. “We also believe it’s possible that the ability to bend is passed down through our ancestors. This is why the Firelord has to marry someone from the Fire Nation, and why I had to renounce my claim to the throne when I married your father, even though we won’t have children together.”
Katara frowned. “So, the Firelord has to be a firebender?”
Zuko shook his head. “Not necessarily, but being a bender in the Fire Nation generally is seen as a sign of being blessed, and strong, which are good qualities for a Firelord to have. My cousin, Lu Ten, for example, is not a bender. He’s second in line for the throne, and then the line of succession falls to my father, and then my sister, both of whom are benders.”
“Oh, okay.” Katara nodded, understanding.
“Going back to the chi, how we direct it is generally perceived to be the universal constant amongst all benders, but it is the expression of that direction that determines the bending element. Only the Avatar can express the bending of all four elements, which is what makes him,” Zuko paused for a moment, thinking back through history. “Or her, important.”
Picking up the scroll, and laying it flat on the ground, Katara took in the complex firebending forms, and reading the descriptions, she realized that the forms were instructing on how to redirect lightning. Her mouth dropped open in shock, having never considered that was possible.
Zuko smiled at the scroll, finding small comforts in the familiar writing of his uncle. “My uncle developed this technique watching the Northern Waterbenders in his early days in the army. Waterbending is all about redirection, feeling the push and pull of your element, much like the moon pushes and pulls the water and tides.”
Katara looked up at the sky, wishing she could see the moon. Zuko pointed back down to the scroll.
“Do you see how the figures are constantly shifting their weight, from one foot to the other, making physical paths for the chi to flow in order to direct the energy of the lightning blast?”
She nodded, looking closer and the forms, noticing in particular their hands. “Well, maybe waterbending works on the same concept, shifting your movements like so to emulate the push and pull of the water?”
Katara’s mouth formed a small o, considering the idea. “That...makes a lot of sense. I’m gonna go try that! Thanks Zuko!” She ran off, excited to try and apply what he had told her to some of the bending moves she had been working on.
Zuko smiled, watching her go, and made to go back to his chores, when he spotted Hakoda approach. The other man did not look very happy, and Zuko tensed up, a slow feeling of dread wash over him.
“Zuko,” Hakoda started, his tone solemn and serious. “I’ve just received word from one of the fishing cutters. They’ve spotted a Fire Navy vessel in our waters, they’re headed in our direction.”
Oh, this was not good.
Chapter 7: Peace Interrupted
Zuko felt the panic rising within him. “What? Are they sure?’ As soon as the question left his lips, Zuko felt silly for asking. Of course they were sure, the Fire Navy ships weren’t exactly unrecognizable.
Hakoda tried to placate and smooth the boy, but it wasn’t working. “We weren’t expecting them for another six to nine months. What are they doing here?”
A bunch of possibilities swam inside Zuko’s head, ranging from his father coming to take him back home, to a raid, but Hakoda placed his palms on Zuko’s shoulders, grounding him
“I don’t know what they’re doing here. But I think we need to talk about the possibility that they could be here to check in on us. On our relationship. As was agreed. They are early, but I need to know, what exactly would they be looking for to merit a successful marriage?”
Zuko tried to swallow the panic and think clearly, but it took a lot of effort. “Um...the bed. They would be expecting us to share a bed. They’ll search the hut to see if it’s where we would be sharing...” The last word was implied, but Hakoda wrinkled his nose.
“Alright. What else?”
Zuko licked his lips. “Casual displays of affection, or typically the kinds of displays one would expect from married couples.”
“Do you mean like kissing?” Hakoda asked, silently dreading the answer.
Zuko shook his head, meriting relief. “No, not in public company. Back home, physical displays of affection are meant to be limited in public, no kissing. Hand-holding and hugging is acceptable in public providing no clothes are removed or dislodged inappropriately to do so. They will expect to see something like that, so actions like putting your arm around me, or touching my hands, face, or neck will satisfy them.”
Zuko’s voice sounded very vacant, almost like he was dissociating, and Hakoda cringed, wishing that this were avoidable.
“They’ll also expect a certain amount of authority. In the Fire Nation, that’s what people respond to. Heads of state, military leaders, diplomats, high-ranking industry professionals are recognized as those to whom a certain amount of respect is given, and in their absence, that respect is granted to their spouses. This goes against Water Tribe customs, as you’ve probably figured, since everyone around here seems to be given equal amounts of respect and say, but those that don’t really know the Water Tribe ways and customs won’t, and don’t care, and will see the absence of that authority as a red flag.”
Anger rose within Hakoda, and he wished not for the first time that he could say to hell with the peace negotiation and tell them where to shove their respect. But they were arriving in a battleship, and Hakoda knew they would not be able to defend themselves against that easily.
“Okay. Is there anything else?” Hakoda asked, silently hoping the answer was no.
Zuko flinched. “They will want to see some kind of proof that we have...copulated.”
Rage swelled up inside Hakoda. “Absolutely not. I don’t care how important this treaty is, they have no right to ask that of you, and we will not let them ask for it.”
Zuko looked up at Hakoda in alarm. “We can’t refuse them. If we do, they will think that I didn’t do my job, that I failed at uniting our nations, and they’ll see that as a failure to uphold the contract. ANd then the peace is off, and they might attack the village. We can’t...I can’t let that happen.”
Zuko’s voice was shaky, but his stance was resolute. These people had opened their arms to him, and their home, and he had to protect them, even at the cost of his own feelings. Even Kana let him call her Gran-Gran now. This was his home. He wouldn’t let them be hurt, not like he had been, he wouldn’t let them destroy his safety.
Hakoda’s grip on Zuko’s shoulders tightened, and he sighed. “What kind of evidence would satisfy them?”
Zuko’s lip trembled. “I...I don’t know.”
Hakoda closed his eyes and exhaled, trying to slow his racing heart. “Okay. Okay. Well, we can prepare for everything else. Why don’t we go back to the hut, and we can move your things to make it look like we’re sharing a bed. After they’ve gone, we can move them back, okay? And while they’re here, I will put my hand around your neck, above the band of your betrothal necklace, is that alright? And I will kiss you on the forehead, just like I do with Sokka and Katara. I probably would have done that anyways, when I was sure you’d be comfortable with it, but I think that might help.”
Zuko nodded slowly, swallowing. “Okay.”
Hakoda nodded, and tried to smile reassuringly. “And I can ask Bato at some point to defer to you to make a decision, maybe when I’m not there. It’ll be something small, but hopefully that will get the point about respect across.”
“Okay.” The assurances did little to quell Zuko’s fear, but he reciprocated Hakoda’s forced smile, and together the two of them walked down to the hut. Kana was inside, stirring up the soup that she was preparing for dinner, and nodded at the two of them as they came in.
“Mother, can you go fetch Katara and Sokka? We’ve had word that a Fire Navy ship is approaching, and we need to warn everyone.”
Kana’s eyes widened, and she straightened up, looking deeply at Zuko’s face. The boy was clearly shaken, and she nodded, leaving without a word. Zuko held his uncle’s scroll in his hands, not moving, or doing much of anything. Hakoda couldn’t even tell if he was breathing.
“Zuko?” Hakoda pressed gently, cupping his hand around the boy’s neck. The reaction was instantaneous. If he had been breathing before, Zuko definitely was not breathing now, and every joint, bone, and muscle in his body tensed. Hakoda expected that, which is why he had done it.
“Zuko, listen to me. We will not let them hurt you. You belong here with the Water Tribe now, and we will do our best to keep you here, do you understand me?”
Zuko gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod, and Hakoda kept speaking. “I put my hand on your neck to get you used to the sensation, but you cannot react like that in front of them. They will immediately know something is wrong, so I want you to relax, as much as you can. Can you do that for me?”
And relax Zuko tried to do. His grip on the scroll loosened, and his feet shifted inside his shoes. Slowly, he exhaled, and allowed the tension to leave his body, although his stomach remained twisted in knots.
“Good.” Hakoda whispered. “Now, we probably don’t have much time, so why don’t you put that away, and then we can rearrange the beds to provide a bit of cover. Is that alright?”
Zuko nodded, somewhat mechanically, but he carefully tucked the scroll back in the bag in the corner. Turning back to his pallet, Zuko picked up a few of the blankets and furs that adorned it, and moved them over to Hakoda’s pallet. Hakoda lifted one of the pelts on his bed, allowing Zuko to layer his items within the depths, intermingling their belongings. He laid a blanket, that was folded, forming a long headrest near the top of the bed, and Zuko pressed down on two separate sections as if to imply that heads had indeed rested in those positions.
It was then an idea came to Hakoda’s mind, and he looked at the weapons on the wall, deep in thought. “What if we displayed your swords on the wall, like the Water tribe weapons we already have?”
Zuko blinked, and considered the option, before nodded. “Yes...I think that would be a good idea.”
Going back to his bag, Zuko pulled out his broadswords, and Hakoda found some small stakes to drive into the wall. Holding the swords in a crossed position, together they mounted the swords on the wall, making it look like they had always been there.
Admiring their handiwork, Hakoda and Zuko were still looking at the swords when both Sokka and Katara rushed in.
“Gran-Gran said a Fire Navy ship was coming!” Sokka huffed out, clearly out of breath.
“We know. They might be here to do an inspection, on how we’ve been holding up the treaty.” Hakoda warned, and Zuko shivered.
“What if they don’t like what they see?” Katara asked, looking back and forth between her father and Zuko.
“I don’t know.” Zuko responded. “But whatever happens, I will not let them hurt you.” Zuko’s voice was steely, but calm. “I’m not going to let them hurt anyone.”
“And we’re not going to let them hurt you.” Hakoda reminded him, and Zuko nodded, gratefully. Katara flung herself forward, hugging Zuko for the very first time. Initially, Zuko froze again at the contact, but soon leant into it, and hugged her back. Sokka grinned, and joined in, pulling their father into the hug as well.
Moments later, Kana re-entered the hut, finding the family still within each other’s embraces. She almost didn’t want to ruin the moment, but knew she had to tell them the news. She cleared her throat, and slowly the participants of the hug slowly extracted themselves.
“The ash has started falling. You should join us outside.”
Hakoda nodded, and turned to Zuko, silently asking if he was ready for this.
Zuko shrugged, and shook his head, as if to say no, but what choice did he have.
Leaving the hut, the family left, with Zuko and Hakoda walking side by side. Together they joined the rest of the village that was already assembled, waiting for the large ship to come in. Slowly, the shadow of the vessel enveloped the entire village, and Zuko forced himself to stand perfectly straight, as if reminded of how to act around his father.
The bow of the ship began to lower, allowing the cargo door to open. The soldiers inside were perfectly assembled, and standing in the middle...
Zuko frowned. That couldn’t be right. He blinked to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.
“Psst, Zuko. Who’s the guy in the middle wearing white?”
Zuko’s mouth opened in surprise. “That’s my cousin, Lu Ten. The crown prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne. He...should not be here.”
Zuko’s response ruminated around the crowd, and not sure what else to do, Zuko stepped forward to greet his cousin.
“Prince Lu Ten. This is a welcome surprise.” The formality of Zuko’s words almost tasted foreign to him now after spending so much time in the Water Tribe.
Lu Ten, who wasn’t much for formality after leaving the military, smiled widely at his cousin, whom he had barely seen after the siege of Ba Sing Se, before Zuko left for the Water Tribe, and practically pounced forward to drag the younger boy into a hug.
“Prince Zuko. It has been too long, little cousin! Come now, let me look at you!”
Zuko rolled his eyes, put at ease slightly by his cousin’s presence. He stepped away from the hug, allowing his cousin’s protective gaze to rove over him.
“No coat? Zuko, we are standing on fresh snow, you must be freezing!” Lu Ten jested, knowing from the warmth his cousin emulated that that wasn’t the case.
“I am used to it by now. Lu Ten, not that I’m not happy to see you, but what are you doing here? Your robes...” Zuko paused, waiting for the news.
Lu Ten’s face grew serious. “Ah, yes. I suppose I should have started with that. Very well, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.”
Lu Ten took a deep breath, and began projecting his voice, so that the villager would be able to hear him. “A week prior to my voyage here, our grandfather, Firelord Azulon passed away, and the rites of his funeral were performed at dawn the day after. In five weeks, I, Lu Ten, Son of Iroh, Son of Azulon, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, am to be crowned Firelord. It is my wish that you be present for the ceremony, and so I ask that you join me in returning back to the Fire Nation.”
Zuko’s mouth parted in shock, and he immediately dropped into a kneeling stance. “All hail Firelord Lu Ten.”
Lu Ten grimaced, and whispered “Stand up. Don’t do that. I don’t like that.”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “That is custom?”
Lu Ten snorted. “What is custom? Making my baby cousin wet his pants on snow to show me respect? I don’t think so.”
Zuko scowled. “You could have said that differently.”
Lu Ten grinned. “Ah, but where would be the fun in that?” He wrapped an arm around Zuko’s shoulders, and leaned against him, making the younger boy stumble. “So, are you going to introduce me to my in-laws, or is my short speech the only greeting they’re going to get?”
Zuko paused, and then nodded, extracting himself from the half-hug his cousin was trying to trap him in. It was then that Lu Ten noticed the betrothal necklace around Zuko’s neck.
“Oh, that’s new.” Lu Ten reached out, and fingered the shell pendant, lifting it up slightly to get a better look at it.
“I like the engraving. That’s very symbolic.”
Zuko nodded, forcing a smile. “My husband made it. He gave it to me at our wedding.”
“Wonderful.” Lu Ten grinned. “Which one is he?” His eyes scanned the crowd, trying to identify which of the Water Tribe members his cousin had married.
Leading Lu Ten forward, the older prince suddenly recognized Chief Hakoda from the peace talks two years prior. “Chief Hakoda, it is good to see you again.”
“Pri...Firelord Lu Ten, welcome to the Southern Water Tribe.”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t realize you two had already met.” The surprise in his voice was obvious, but Lu Ten missed it.
“Yes, we met at the peace negotiations in the Northern Water tribe briefly.”
“Yes, if only we knew then what would happen.” Hakoda forced out a light laugh, and Lu Ten frowned, slightly confused. And then he looked back at Zuko, who looked at Hakoda.
Lu Ten put two and two together. “Wait, you married the...chief of the Southern Water Tribe?”
Zuko frowned. “Uncle didn’t tell you?”
That gave Lu Ten pause. Iroh would have known, he escorted Zuko here three months ago, he witnessed the ceremony. But it was not like his father to keep secrets. So why didn’t he tell him this?
“No, he did not. But it is no matter. I am glad you have at least married someone I’ve already met. I did not like much the idea of you marrying a complete stranger.” Lu Ten tried to cover his internal shock. Zuko was seventeen in a few weeks, and it was not unreasonable to think that Hakoda was at least twice his age. Lu Ten was already imagining the conversation he would have with his father upon returning home.
Zuko coughed, and moved the conversation along. “And this is Kana, my mother-in-law.” The older woman nodded, although her gaze never left Lu Ten’s face. It was a little unsettling actually.
“And my step-children, Sokka,” The young boy nodded. “...and Katara.”
Lu Ten smiled politely. “It is nice to make your acquaintances. Thank you for putting up with him for three months.”
The joke did not fall entirely flat, Sokka at least cracked a smile. Zuko cringed. “Lu Ten, may I ask again, why you’re here?”
Lu Ten frowned. “I already told you. Grandfather...”
“Yes, I got that. But why are YOU here?” Zuko asked. “You’re the new Firelord, surely there are more important things for you to be doing that sailing a quarter way around the world to the South Pole to come and pick me up. You could’ve just sent a ship with a messenger hawk, or one of the military ranking officers.”
Lu Ten shrugged. “You would think. But no, they don’t really want me doing anything until I’ve been coronated. They gave me a title and nothing to do. So I decided to come myself. Besides, I’ve been to the North Pole, why shouldn’t I see the South as well? I think it’s the only place left in the world I haven’t been to?”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “So you’ve seen the Air Temples then?”
Lu Ten scowled. “No one’s seen the Air Temples. You try climbing those mountains.” The Air Temples were a bitter point to Lu Ten, who was fascinated by Air Nomad culture. Zuko knew that, having learned much about what he knew of the Air Nomads from his cousin.”
“Who knows, I might one day.” Zuko challenged, grinning slightly. Lu Ten smacked him in the shoulder, and waved his arm out.
“One day you might. But today, can you be a good host and show me around, before I get hopelessly lost in the snow?”
“Wearing that, it might be easier than you think.” Zuko snarked, and Lu Ten groaned in mock disgust. He had missed his cousin.
Chapter 8: There and Back Again
Taking Lu Ten around the Southern Tribe was a tormenting experience. Zuko loved his cousin, in fact, he would be one of maybe two people in Zuko’s biological family to whom he would actually admit it. That didn’t stop the entire experience of merging his old family with his new one from seeming very, very wrong.
Lu Tun was attentive, respectful even, and asked plenty of questions, including about hunting for food and architecture. Showing him around the small village resulted in a very playful interaction between the new Firelord and his husband’s family. He didn’t comment on Zuko’s relationship, or the fake appearance of a successful marriage, which brought Hakoda , Sokka, and Katara some relief. But as the Sun began to set, and the ship’’s crew got antsy about navigating the ice field in the dark, Zuko felt even worse than he had before. He knew there was something coming, and soon enough, so would everyone else.
Leaving Lu Ten back by the docks, Zuko walked his way back to the hut, closely followed by Hakoda , and his children.
“So now what?” Sokka asked, not sure why the Fire Nation ship wasn’t leaving.
Zuko swallowed, and responded, trying not to let his voice crack. “Now I go pack my things and get on board that ship.”
Sokka looked at his sister in alarm, and her own face mirrored his. “What? No. We said we wouldn’t let them take you, and we won’t.”
Zuko stopped abruptly, and the family nearly crashed into him. “Yes, you will. They don’t want me back indefinitely. It’s just for the coronation. A three-week journey there, a couple weeks in the Fire Nation, and then a three-week journey back. I’ll be gone for two months, and then I’ll be back. And then in seven months they come back for the inspection. As planned. Hopefully.”
Hakoda frowned. “Are you sure Zuko?” Hakoda was sure his wasn’t the only stomach deliberately protesting this situation.
Zuko nodded. “Lu Ten is one of the only members of my family I know I can trust. I have to do this, for him. He’s a good man, he’ll do right by the Earth Kingdom while he’s in charge. And it would be better for us...for the water tribes with him on the throne, compared to my father.”
Hakoda nodded, knowing he would not change Zuko’s mind, and when Sokka tried to protest, Hakoda waved his hand, stopping him. Zuko resumed walking, but the small family did not follow him. Part of them could not bear to watch him pack, and Katara’s eyes welled up with tears. How did today go so wrong?
Hakoda waited a moment, before entering the hut alone, leaving his children standing outside. Where Zuko’s pallet had been before they merged the beds had now become a place for the boy to sort what he would take with him. The beautiful bending scrolls that Hakoda occasionally caught him pouring over were stacked neatly to the side, but the swords had been taken off the wall and wrapped tightly in layers of clothing.
“Are you expecting a fight when you get there?’ Hakoda asked, noticing for the first time that Zuko was fastening the greaves of his traditional armor to his calves.
“Possibly.” Zuko answered thoughtlessly, and Hakoda’s eyes flitted unseen to the scar on his face.
“I know I wasn’t invited, but do you want me to come with you?” He offered.
Zuko looked up, surprised. “I. ..no. I don’t think we should...no. Thinking about maintaining appearances here was bad enough. Trying to do it there, in front of my father and my sister? No. That is a bad idea.”
Hakoda nodded, understanding. “Besides,” Zuko continued. “You are needed here, I won’t ask to take you away from your children like that.”
Hakoda raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t ask, I offered.”
Zuko floundered for a moment. “I...I know. But I...well, maybe...” Zuko cringed internally, regretting thinking only minutes earlier how much he had wanted Hakoda to come with him. Zuko had never felt safe around his father, always finding the man vaguely threatening, and holding a grudge against his son. Iroh had been a paternal figure in his life, for whom Zuko was grateful, but it was Hakoda who had given him a home, and a real family, and he didn’t want to leave it behind.
“You should take one of the pelts with you.” Hakoda told him, saving the boy from the internal embarrassment. That way you’ll have something to remind you of us.”
Zuko smiled, and grazed his fingers at the base of his throat, where the betrothal necklace still hung. “I already do.”
“Even then, it’ll help sell the idea that you’ve settled into the Southern Water tribe nicely. How about this one?”
Hakoda picked up a large white pelt, that was almost as long as Zuko was tall, and the teenager took it without a word, folding it gently into the bag that seemed almost deflated without the wide chestpiece of Zuko’s armor stashed in it.
Soon enough, all of Zuko’s things were packed, except for the bending scrolls. Hakoda made to grab them, to give them to Zuko, but Zuko protested.
“No. I. ..Would you mind if those stayed here?” He asked, and Hakoda aborted his movement to pick up the scrolls, frowning.
“ Of course they can stay here. But won’t you want those with you?” Hakoda asked, confused.
“No. My uncle gave those to me secretly. They’re one of a kind, and the closest thing I will ever get to a family heirloom. If I take them back, someone might find them, and steal them. I wouldn’t put that past my sister. They’re safer here, and while it’s not the same, Katara might find some value in them.”
Hakoda nodded, understanding Zuko’s reasoning. There was nothing else then, for either of them to do, but say goodbye. Hakoda’s throat tightened, and the overwhelming urge to hug Zuko fought like a grown sabertooth moose lion in his chest.
It would appear that Zuko learned to read minds briefly in that moment however, as the next thing Hakoda knew, the teenage boy’s arms were wrapped around his chest, and after recovering his breath from the impact, Hakoda quickly enveloped Zuko in a reciprocated motion.
The ship’s horn resounded out of thin air, and Hakoda could feel Zuko flinch into his chest. Not knowing what else to do, Hakoda bent down slightly, and pressed his lips to Zuko’s hairline. “You’ll be back with us soon, Zuko. You’re my family now, and I promise, we’ll never let you forget it. Do you understand me?”
Zuko nodded, and pulled away, his eyes swimming. “Thank you.” He rasped, before stepping out of the hut, his bag slung over his shoulder. Sokka and Katara were still there waiting for him, and soon Zuko found himself wrapped in yet another hug. But this time it was him who would need to comfort them.
“I’m coming back. I’m coming back.” Zuko repeated, trying to convince himself just as much as he was trying to convince them. Katara only clutched on to him tighter as gentle sobs hitched out of her throat, and while Sokka was trying to be matcho about it, Zuko could see the younger boy’s lip trembling too.
“You better, alright?” Sokka vowed. “Or I’m coming to that palace myself and dragging you back, armed with my boomerang. You are a part of our village now, you can’t stay gone forever.”
Zuko chuckled, wiping the tears out of his eyes. “Got it. I’ll let them know to watch their backs for you. I’ll see you in two months. Don’t have too much fun without me.” Finally, Zuko began the short walk from the family hut to the docks, and looking back briefly, Zuko could see Hakoda and Kana now standing together next to the two preteens, watching him go. Looking back at the ship, fear and bile rose in Zuko’s throat, and he was reminded briefly that the ship had been designed to look menacing on purpose to the enemies of the Fire Nation.
Zuko wondered if that now applied to him as he was swallowed by the depths of the ship.
Back at the hut, Katara could see the gangway of the massive vessel retract back into place, and the vibrations of the ship’s engines being thrown in reverse reverberated through the ice. Every part of her body begged her to run after Zuko, but she was struck still, unable to do anything but stay where she was standing.
Sokka was paralyzed as well, stuck in a potent feeling of deja -vu, watching the ship leave. The day his mother died, he had watched the ships leave then, feeling the cold of the Fire Nation’s shadow linger her absence, a cold that only got bigger now as...as his best friend left on board the navy vessel. The family watched the ship grow smaller and smaller until it was but a speck on the horizon. By the time they could honestly see it no further, it was nearly dark, and Sokka found himself suddenly grateful for the reduced lighting. That way he could pretend that no one would be able to see the tear running down his face.
A week and a half passed, and every day, each member of the small Water tribe family thought of their absent member, especially so on what would’ve been his seventeenth birthday. Traditionally, in the Water tribe, when a birthday occurs, the whole village celebrates. Close relatives give gifts, like clothes, weapons, or handmade items, and then a communal feast is held. The meat for the meal is caught early, and stored underground, deep in the ice to prevent it from rotting. Village elders sing and tell stories, and the children dance and play around the fire that is lit. Instead, no one celebrated anything.
Katara and Kana did the sewing in silence, and neither woman tried to stare at the area on the wall where the dual swords had been briefly mounted. Sokka had tied the knife that Zuko had given him to his belt, and wore it everywhere. His fingers brushed against the hilt often as a way to find comfort.
Hakoda frequently joined the fishing trips that went far out into deep water. Gone for hours at a time, the other men on the boat often knew that the chief was there only to look at the horizon hoping to spot a navy ship, even though it would be weeks before one would grace their skyline. They left him alone in silence, not sure it that would make it better or not.
How Zuko ended up celebrating his birthday though was far different than what would have been planned. The world had changed so much in the three years since his initial engagement, and the day in which he got his scar, and despite being basically excommunicated from the Fire Nation, things had gotten so much better, even with a fake marriage.
Upon boarding the ship and being shown to his quarters, Zuko had immediately gotten to redecorating. The large white pelt was artfully draped over the pillows and headboard of the bed, and his dual swords were placed unsheathed on top of a small dresser. The warm winter clothes that he had acquired while in the South Pole remained carefully packed however, and his armor got more and more use every day. Lu Ten often came to visit, and made small talk, but as the leader on board, his cousin was frequently busy, and with no responsibilities of his own, Zuko was left alone with solely his thoughts for company.
But on his birthday, Zuko awakened to a loud banging on his door, and blearily got out of bed, noticing that the sun had not even yet risen outside. Opening the door, Zuko found his cousin standing outside, his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels, grinning.
“Lu Ten? What is it?”
Lu Ten smirked. “What, I can’t visit my baby cousin on his birthday?”
Zuko groaned, having forgotten for a moment the anniversary. “He can...at a more acceptable time in the morning.”
Lu Ten rolled his eyes. “I remember when we were little, you used to get up hours before dawn, saying that you could see the barest hint of sunlight. Being in the Water Tribe has truly changed you.”
“That’s because the sun rises so much later there,” Zuko explained, rubbing his eyes. “It’s freezing before the sun comes up, so work is limited pretty much during the daylight when they have it.”
“Veery well. But there is a reason for being up so early. That’s when the ship’s cook gets to work.”
“Okay?” Zuko replied, not seeing what the cook had to do with anything.
Lu Ten rolled his eyes. “The cook made you a special treat. This is for you.”
Bring his arms around, Zuko realized that his cousin was holding a tray behind his back. Taking the tray, and uncovering the dishes, Zuko was instantly awoken by the pleasant smell of fresh hotcakes.
“These are for me?” Zuko looked up at Lu Ten, who nodded enthusiastically.
“Yes. Happy Birthday Zuko!”
Zuko was touched, having been unable to remember the last time he had felt anything remotely close to happy on his birthday. Probably when he was thirteen, Zuko supposed.
“Thank you. Do you want to come in?” Zuko asked, stepping aside for the Firelord -to-be.
“Depends, are you going to share?” Lu Ten asked, eyeing the hotcakes hungrily.
“Maybe.” Zuko rolled his eyes, internally pleased to have discovered his cousin’s motives.
“Then I do believe I will.” With that Lu Ten stepped in the room, and immediately noticed the white pelt on the bed.
“Ah, that’s new.” Lu Ten commented, as Zuko closed the door, balancing the tray in one hand.
“What is?” Zuko asked, having not followed Lu Ten’s eyeline.
Zuko blinked, and placed the tray on the foot of the bed, pulling up the chair by a small writing desk for his cousin to sit. Lu Ten sat, and Zuko straightened out the bedsheets before sitting cross-legged next to the tray, and passed his cousin a hotcake.
“Thank you.” Lu Ten said, before pausing. Zuko took a bite out of his own hotcake, and internally melted, not having realized how much he missed Fire Nation food. Lu Ten watched his cousin eat, before allowing himself to reveal what was on his mind.
“I wish my father had told me about Chief Hakoda.”
“Told you what?” Zuko mumbled, devouring his hotcake.
“That you were married to someone twice your age.” Lu Ten spat, and Zuko froze.
“No. Zuko. I know it’s too late now, but that should never have been allowed to happen. I don’t know who would have agreed to such a thing, but I can’t imagine how humiliating...”
“It’s not real.” Zuko admitted, quietly, stopping Lu Ten in his tracks.
“I’m sorry?” Lu Ten was confused.
Zuko finished the hotcake, sucking the syrup that covered the pastry off his fingers before making eye contact with his cousin. “For legal purposes sake, Hakoda and I agreed to maintain the guise of a marriage for the Fire Nation. They need the peace treaty to be successful, Lu Ten. The South Pole especially. The Fire Nation decimated their population, it’s going to take them decades to rebuild. The North Pole isn’t as bad off, but that’s only because they still have waterbenders. You saw that while we were there.”
Lu Ten nodded, having realized it would be impolite to comment on the poor status of the water tribe. “Okay. Go on.”
“But it’s not a real relationship. He’s more like...my guardian, than a husband. We’ve never even... y’know . Done anything.”
Lu Ten blinked. “Why would he agree to that?”
Zuko bit his lip. “The same reason you objected to the marriage just now. Our age difference is incredibly disproportionate, and since neither of us had been aware of that when we agreed...”
Lu Ten scoffed, internally contesting Zuko’s agreement to the match. Zuko rolled his eyes, and continued. “We decided that we would keep our relationship...platonic. If that’s the right word.”
“And he hasn’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do, or mistreated you in any way?” Lu Ten was still suspicious.
“No,” Zuko shook his head emphatically. “He’s been really kind. He’s treated me far better than I deserve, for being someone coming from the country that ruined his people, and never asked for any repayment other than helping the tribe in small ways.”
Lu Ten’s eyes softened. “And the bed, in the house?”
“We weren’t sure why you were here, we tried to cover our tracks in case it was an inspection.” Zuko admitted.
Lu Ten breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay. Okay. Good. Well, not good that you have to do this at all, but good. I’m glad.”
There was an awkward silence, and Zuko picked up another hotcake, offering it to his cousin, who took it with a smile. But that smile quickly turned into a frown, as Lu Ten remembered something.
“That still doesn’t explain why my father didn’t mention any of this to me.”
Zuko paused. “He doesn’t know. Lu Ten. You can’t tell anyone about this.”
Lu Ten’s mouth dropped open. “Zuko! No, we have to. We can get the marriage annulled; you can come home. Advise me on my council.”
Zuko’s eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. “What!?”
Chapter 9: The Coronation
“Lu Ten. You can’t tell anyone about this.”
Lu Ten’s mouth dropped open. “Zuko! No, we have to. We can get the marriage annulled; you can come home. Advise me on my council.”
Zuko’s eyes widened. “What?”
End of Flashback...
“What are you talking about?” Zuko asked.
“If you and Hakoda haven’t solidified your marriage through sex, then your marriage can be annulled. We can break the peace treaty.”
“Why in the hell would we want to do that?” Zuko yelled, taking Lu Ten by surprise.
“But...Zuko. You can come home. Permanently. Don’t you want that?” His cousin frowned, not understanding Zuko’s reticence to the proposal.
“No. Not at the expense of the Water Tribes. I just told you, they need the treaty.”
“So? We don’t.” Lu Ten was now definitely confused.
“Why not?” Zuko asked. “Why did we agree to the treaty at all if we don’t need it?”
“I don’t know Zuko, but there is no reason for you to stay there, trapped in an unfulfilling marriage with someone who can’t, and shouldn’t make you happy.”
“But he does.” Zuko blurted out. Lu Ten gaped at him. Realizing what he had just said, Zuko gaped, unable to continue.
“But you just said...” Lu Ten started to speak, but Zuko cut him off.
“There’s more than one kind of happiness. I wasn’t ready for the kind of marriage I was expecting when I got married, but I am really happy with what I have. Lu Ten, you can’t take that away from me. As much as I miss being in the Fire Nation...I don’t need it.” Zuko paused, unable to believe what he was saying. “I’m happy in the South Pole, and I know that doesn’t make sense to you, but you can’t take that away from me. Please.”
Zuko looked in his cousin’s, fully prepared to beg, but Lu Ten did something then that he didn’t expect. Lu Ten dragged Zuko into a hug, and Zuko stilled, not sure what to do.
“I would never. Zuko. If you really want to stay in the South Pole, who am I to force you otherwise. I just didn’t want you to feel like you were obligated to stay there because of the treaty.”
Zuko breathed a sigh of relief. “No, that’s not it at all. I mean, it was at first, but now...they’re like family. Which is why you can’t tell anyone. Please, Lu Ten, you have to promise me.”
Lu Ten nodded. “I won’t. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to spring that on you. I just needed to understand. I won’t pretend I’m not a little disappointed though.”
Zuko frowned. “What do you mean?”
Lu Ten shook his head. “I...Zuko, your father has been pushing for months to push me down in terms of line of succession, suggesting that there is a reason why he should be coronated instead of me. Your grandfather was dead-set against it, saying it was my birthright, but he has half of the War Council convinced that I’m not fit to rule.”
“What?” Zuko asked, alarmed. “I knew he wanted the throne, that much was obvious as soon as Uncle abdicated, but to go so far, why?”
“He’s worried about when I produce my own heirs. I have no children yet, I’m not even married.”
“But once they exist, that pushes him further and further away from power.” Zuko carried on, putting the pieces together. Dread filled his stomach.
“Zuko, I feel as though I should warn you. In case anything happens at the coronation, be prepared. I don’t trust your father.”
“And you shouldn’t.” Zuko snapped. “Lu Ten, he can challenge you for the throne prior to the coronation.”
Lu Ten frowned. “How? I’m not a firebender. An Agni Kai is out of the question.”
Zuko shook his head. “Is it? For something as important as this? No. He will. I’m certain of it.”
Lu Ten swore. “Maybe I should abdicate, and let him have it.”
Zuko stiffened in shock. “Why?”
Lu Ten gestured nowhere in particular. “Zuko, as skilled as I am as a military leader, I cannot lead if I don’t trust the men around me. Your father will do his best to undermine me at every turn, and then what? Do I just sit on the throne until he has enough support to stage a coup?”
Zuko’s mouth ran dry at the thought. “No, but if you abdicate, he’ll be on the throne, and Lu Ten, that will just make everything worse.”
“Worse how?” Lu Ten ran his fingers through his usually kempt hair.
“Lu Ten, come on. Look at the world. Do you honestly believe this war has done anything to improve the lives of the people living in the Earth Kingdom?”
Lu Ten’s entire body froze, and he turned to Zuko in shock. “What are you saying?”
Zuko wasn’t sure where he found the courage to continue, but he did. “Lu Ten, the war is a joke. It’s not helping anyone, it hasn’t for years. It’s just been an excuse for the Fire Nation to bully the rest of the world into submission and take whatever it wants from them. It wiped the Air Nomads and the Avatar from existence. It’s decimated the Southern Water Tribe, and almost completely forced the Northern Tribe into total isolation on the other side of the world. And the Earth Kingdom? Those who aren’t press-ganged into the military live in either total poverty, total fear, or total hopelessness as refugees. Benders of both the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom fill our prisons on ridiculous charges, and back home? We might not see it much as royalty, but there is nothing the Fire Nation has outside of the war. Bending is taught for war. History is limited to the war. Our culture has been forgotten or buried, and our country is suffering from it. Have you ever gone to visit the rural areas of our homeland? It’s filthy, and polluted by the factories churning out ships and armor. Birth rates are down because people are away serving, and famine and sickness plagues the poor because all food and medicine is being given to the military.”
Lu Ten took his hand, and lunged forward, covering Zuko’s mouth. “Zuko, stop. What you’re saying is treason.”
Zuko grabbed Lu Ten’s hand and pulled it away. “Treason against who? If you’re the Firelord , you can make it so that criticism of the war isn’t illegal.”
“What war, Zuko? We’re at peace! We ensured that in Ba Sing Se!” Lu Ten protested.
“And when did the uprisings start?” Zuko asked, suspicious.
Lu Ten paused. “How do you know about those?”
Zuko smirked, and Lu Ten rubbed his hand down his face. “You didn’t...until I told you.”
“Yeah, because I’m not stupid. The war is over for US, Lu Ten. Not so much for the rest of the world. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I said the Water Tribes need the peace treaty, don’t think for a second that they aren’t willing to fight back against the Fire Nation if the Earth Kingdom does.”
Lu Ten sighed. “Okay. So what would you have me do?”
Zuko paused, before continuing. “Establish regents, and diplomats in the territories. Start putting people that the citizens in those areas actually respect in power. Leaders of the Earth Kingdom who will work with the Fire Nation to negotiate equality and better treatment of their people. Revise the prison system. Let them bend, cutting people off from their element is inhumane by any standard. Empty our prisons, and prioritize only violent protesters, but make sure that the system is accountable to the point that our own people aren’t taking advantage and aggravating the colonies. Make more treaties, and negotiate peace in exchange for political responsibility. And funnel less wealth into the military, invest in domestic issues, and social programs. If this is truly about demonstrating the greatness of the Fire Nation, convince them why we’re so great in the first place.”
Lu Ten sat back, considering Zuko’s words. “And if that doesn’t work?”
“How do you know it won’t work if you don’t try?” Zuko countered.
“I don’t think I can try.” Lu Ten admitted, and Zuko deflated.
“Why not?” The younger boy asked.
“It’s like I told you Zuko, your father is convincing people to be against me. In the weeks I’ve been gone it could be even worse. And the main council is full of military leaders whom I can’t just replace. How do you think they’ll react if I tell them I want to stop spending so much money on the military? I agree with some of your points, but I’m sorry. I can’t do that, not yet, not now.”
“Lu Ten...” Zuko called after his cousin, who stood up, and made to leave the room.
“Zuko, I appreciate your perspective. But please, for your sake, and mine, let’s just agree that what was discussed in this room does not leave it.” Lu Ten’s tone was final, and short, and Zuko nodded, emotion forcing his chest to clench.
“I understand.” Zuko stood, and bowed to his cousin. “Thank you for granting me an audience, Firelord Lu Ten. I’m sure you’re very busy.” Zuko opened the door, and stared at his cousin, waiting for him to leave.
“Zuko, I...” Lu Ten trailed off, recognizing the stubborn look in his cousin’s eyes. Without another word, Lu Ten left the room, and after an appropriate distance was between his cousin and the door, Zuko slammed it closed and locked it.
Tears welled up in his eyes, and Zuko allowed them to fall, and the sobs that had been building up in his chest to emerge. The last hotcake remained on the tray, but Zuko ignored it, instead climbing back on his bed, and wrapping his fingers in the white fur of the pelt, never wishing more that he was back in the Southern Water tribe. So much for a happy birthday.
After five more days of sailing, the ship landed in the bay of the Fire Nation Mainland, where they were greeted by quite a crowd. Lu Ten and Zuko exited together, but there was an awkward distance between the two cousins as they hadn’t spoken since their discussion in Zuko’s room. On the dock, Zuko noticed his uncle, father and sister waiting for them, and he closed his eyes, still emotionally unprepared for the reunion.
“ Firelord Lu Ten, welcome back.” Ozai bowed shallowly, and Lu Ten nodded.
“Prince Ozai , thank you. I trust that everything has gone well in my absence in preparation for the coronation?”
“Indeed. There are some matters that will need your personal approval, of course, but they will be taken care of shortly, now that you’re back.”
“Cousin Azula, you’re looking as lovely as ever. How is your training going?” Lu Ten redirected his attention to Zuko’s sister, who hadn’t taken her eyes off her older brother from the moment he disembarked from the ship. She snapped toward Lu Ten, and put on a fake smile.
“ Oh it’s going very well. Perhaps I could give you a demonstration sometime after the coronation. I’ve gotten much better at bending lightning recently.”
“I’m glad to hear it. We’ll have to arrange something soon, as your talents are something to marvel at.”
Azula smiled smugly, and nodded. Finally, Lu Ten directed his attention to his own father.
“Father, thank you for coming. I have some matters I should like to discuss with you, if you don’t mind.”
Iroh smiled, and his eyes glanced between his son and nephew. “Of course. I’m sure though that you both would like an opportunity to settle back in first.”
Lu Ten nodded, and started walking to the royal palankeen that was sat, waiting for them. Zuko knew he would be joining his uncle, rather than his father and sister, and waited for the rest of his family to leave the docks.
“Prince Zuko, how was your journey?” Iroh asked, noticing the stiff body language of his nephew.
“It was fine, thank you Uncle.” Zuko responded softly, and Iroh frowned slightly.
“And can you give me any clue as to what my son would like to talk about?” Iroh questioned.
Zuko tensed, and shrugged. “I suppose one might be querying why you didn’t reveal the identity of my husband to him, but other than that, no. I have no idea.”
They reached the palankeen, and Zuko waited for Iroh to get in, before he himself entered. “I see,” Iroh said, responding to Zuko’s comment. “I suppose part of me had hoped that it would spare your reputation here by simply maintaining the secret. But perhaps I should have prepared my son for what he would find in the South Pole. And tell me, how is Chief Hakoda?”
Zuko recognized Iroh’s subtle redirection of the conversation. “He’s well, as are his children. The Southern Water Tribe is doing much better now that their family members are home safe.”
“That is good. I am glad to hear it. And things between Chief Hakoda and yourself?” Iroh gave him a knowing glance, and Zuko did his best to muster a blush, while gently placing his fingers where the betrothal necklace was covered by his armor.
“Also well, thank you for asking.”
“Hmm. It cannot be easy being separated so shortly into your marriage.” Iroh’s tone made Zuko freeze, and Zuko did his best to appear sincere.
“No, it hasn’t. I’ve found that I’ve adjusted well to the South Pole, and being back in the Fire Nation will take some getting used to.” Zuko was honest in his response, but Iroh sat back, clearly unsatisfied.
“They’re treating you well, I hope.” Iroh asked.
“Oh yes, Uncle,” Zuko confirmed. “They’ve been extremely decent to me.”
“Then that is all I can ask for as an in-law, isn’t it?” Iroh asked, smiling.
Zuko smiled, unsure. “I suppose so.”
Iroh and Zuko continued to make small talk as they rode back to the palace. As they entered the front gates, and disembarked from the palenkeen , Zuko spotted Azula waiting on the front steps of the palace.
“Zu-zu, we didn’t get a chance to speak at the docks. Welcome home big brother.” Azula smiled sweetly, but Zuko was suspicious.
“Azula. Thank you. I’m surprised to find you out here?” Zuko sniped.
“Well I simply had to say hello. We have not seen each other in three months, maybe I want to catch up.”
“Azula, your brother is very tired from his journey. Take some time to reunite after he has had some rest.” Iroh interrupted the siblings, eying Azula who scowled at him.
“Of course. I will find you later. Welcome home Zuko.” She nodded and left, walking up the steps, and Iroh gestured at Zuko to follow her path.
“After you, Prince Zuko.”
The coronation was three days later, and an extravagant affair by any standards. Musicians and artists from around the Fire Nation were invited to the palace and nobles from both the homeland and colonies made sure to be in attendance. For most of the ceremony, Zuko stuck close to his uncle, but occasionally found himself dragged into conversations with those curious about his recent accomodations . The event lasted for the entire day, from sunrise to sunset, and by the time it was long past dusk, Zuko was exhausted.
Retiring to his room, Zuko planted himself facedown on the bed, ready to fall asleep in his ceremonial robes.
“Well aren’t you the picture of grace?” Zuko groaned, realizing he was not alone in his own room.
“Azula. What do you want?”
“Ah ah ah , it’s Princess Azula to you now, Zu-zu. You know that.”
Zuko scowled, but said nothing. Azula’s gaze sharpened, and she uncrossed her legs, before standing next to the desk in the room, and walking closer to her brother, who now sat upright on his bed. She waited, clearly expecting him to use the formal address.
“Fine. Princess Azula, what are you doing here, and what do you want?” Zuko spat out.
Azula rolled her eyes. “ Oh for Agni’s sake Zuko. I just want to talk to you! Is that so hard to believe?”
“Yes,” Zuko responded, far too quickly. “You never want to talk to me unless you want to either interrogate me or manipulate me. Which is it this time?”
Azula made a noise of disgust, and joined him on the bed. “Neither. I just wanted to ask you about what being in the Southern Water Tribe is like. Is it horrible? That’s what Father says. It’s always cold, and dark, and there’s snow everywhere.”
Azula shuddered. Zuko shrugged. “It’s an acquired taste.”
“And your husband, is he an acquired taste too?” She asked, smirking. Zuko shot her a look, and she cackled.
“Forgive me Zu-zu, but I can’t help but find it just a little funny.”
Zuko scowled. “ Oh do you? Just wait your turn.”
It was Azula’s turn to scowl. “I don’t see myself being married off like a piece of cattle to a Water Tribe peasant. After all, I am the future of the Fire Nation throne, should Firelord Lu Ten fail to find a bride.”
“And why would he do that?” Zuko asked, frowning.
“Well he is the first Firelord in over a century to ascend to the throne, unmarried? It can’t exactly be easy courting someone in charge of the country? That doesn’t put great prospects on his progeny.”
Zuko considered the point Azula was making. “He’s the Firelord . Any woman would be lucky to have the chance to marry him.” Zuko tried to put as much conviction in his voice as possible, despite the doubt running through his brain.
Azula rolled her eyes. “Ugh, I forgot how much of an optimist you are. It’s very annoying.”
“Well, don’t worry, I’ll be gone again soon enough.” Zuko reminded her, internally looking forward to sailing back to the Southern Water Tribe.
“ Oh I know.” Azula smiled, before getting up and leaving. “Arrangements are already being made after all.” She threw that statement over her shoulder, and Zuko paused, trying to understand what she meant, as the door closed, throwing the room into darkness.
“Okay, this sucks .” Sokka complained for the fourth time since they’d started the fishing trip in the iceberg field.
“ So you’ve said,” Katara eyed the small fish that had once more eluded her brother’s spear.
Sokka scowled at his sister over his shoulder, and then refocused on the fish. “Okay, it’s not getting away from me this time. Watch and learn Katara!”
“ Sure thing Sokka.” Katara desired nothing less than to watch her brother fish, but then a small movement caught her eye. There was another fish, swimming closer to the canoe. She glanced back at her brother, who was distracted, and then took a deep breath. Remembering what Zuko had told her about pushing and pulling, she took off her mitten, and tried bending the fish out of the water.
It was difficult, and the water did not respond easily, but slowly, a ball of water encapsulating the fish rose above the water. “Sokka, look, I caught one.”
“Hang on, I’ve almost got this.” Sokka jostled the canoe, and Katara’s control started to slip. She tried bending the water over the boat before she dropped the fish, and overcorrected, losing any hold on the water...right over her brother’s head.
Sokka yelps, accidentally knocking the fish that had now fallen in the canoe back in the water, and turns to glare at her. “Katara!”
“Why is it, whenever you play with magic water, I get soaked! I almost had that fish!”
“It’s not magic, it’s waterbending ! And unlike you, I actually had a fish, until you knocked it back in the water.”
“Whatever! Just don’t use that weird freaky magic around me!” Sokka yelled, and Katara scowled at him.
“It’s not weir...whoa!” The boat jerked suddenly during their fight, and the siblings looked around, noticing that they were now caught in a current of rapidly shifting icebergs.
“Oh, no! Hold on!” Sokka takes control of the paddles, and tries desperately to direct the canoe away from impacting with the ice.
“Watch out!” Katara cries, noticing too late another iceberg heading right for them.
Making a split decision, Sokka grabs his sister, and flings them both out of the canoe, onto a nearby iceberg, just as the boat is smashed by the ice.
The two siblings come back to their senses, and watch the debris of their boat float apart, and Katara frowns. “Well that’s just great!” Sokka groans.
“What part of watch out did you not get?” Katara shoots at him, and Sokka’s face twists with anger.
“Hey, I was at least doing something! Maybe if you had used your bending, we’d still have our boat right now!”
“Oh, so it’s my fault!” Katara cries, infuriated.
“Ugh, I knew I should’ve left you at home. Leave it to a girl to screw things up!” Sokka spits, and Katara stiffens, before going red entirely.
“You are the most...sexist...nut-brained...immature...jerk!” Katara flung snow at her brother, not noticing her emotions’ impact they were standing on. “I’m...I’m embarrassed to even be RELATED to you! Ugh!”
Sokka’s eyes widened, noticing large cracks form in the ice outcropping. His face takes on an expression of terror, which Katara doesn’t notice.
“Ever since Zuko left, I’ve been doing all the work, while you’ve been playing warrior!” The ice starts to slide apart, and tumble downwards.
“Between you and Dad, I’ve been left alone...”
“Katara!” Sokka yells, and points, and she finally turns, seeing the ice landslide. She gasps, and the iceberg splits completely in half, pounds of snow and ice tumbling into the water, and towards them, throwing the siblings flat on their backs.
Coughing, and shivering, they sit up, and Sokka looks at his sister blankly. “Okay, weird magic suddenly became freakish!”
Katara blinks, and stares at the iceberg in shock. “You mean...I did that?”
“Yep,” Sokka tries to get up, but slips on the fresh snow. “Congratulations.” The iceberg that they’re left laying on suddenly tips, and a large dome of ice suddenly surges out of the water. Sokka and Katara scramble to find purchase so that they’re not thrown in the water, but the ground eventually settles.
The two Water Tribe members eye the dome, which is subtly glowing. Inching closer, Katara realizes that she can see the form of something...no, someone inside.
Sokka pokes the dome with his spear, which was laying half buried in the snow. The glow gets rapidly brighter, and the figure that they can see appears to open their eyes.
“Oh my...he’s alive. We have to help!”
“What!” Sokka yelps. “No way! We don’t even know who, or what that thing is! Let’s just leave it alon...Katara!”
Katara lunges for her brother, quickly grabbing the machete on his back out of the sheath, and strikes the dome with it, causing cracks to form. She hits the ice again, and the cracks get wider, and wider. On the third strike, the dome splits open, and a blast of freezing air emerges, blasting the two backwards. Pushing themselves up, a large beam of light shoots into the air. Sokka leaps over his sister, but the light fades and the two cautiously approach the iceberg, which has now become a massive crater.
“What was that?” Katara whispers, and the two peek over the rim of the crater, before lurching backwards as someone heaves themselves out of the dome.
The boy is small, younger than either of them, completely bald and wearing bright yellow and orange clothing. Faint blue tattoos cover his hands and head. Before either of them can say anything, the figure collapses, and tumbles towards them, and Katara has to rush to catch him.
She gently sets the boy’s prone form on the snow, and Sokka pokes him a few times with the butt of his speak, before Katara snaps at him to stop.
It was then that the boy started to muster consciousness, and Katara realized that his eyes were starting to open. A soft noise emerged from his mouth, and she leant closer to try and hear him.
“I need to ask you something...” He whispered.
Katara nodded, and said “Okay, what is it?”
The boy struggled briefly to speak louder, and his eyes opened a bit more. “Please...”
Katara moved even closer, and his eyes finally focused, locking with hers. “Will you go penguin-sledding with me?”
“Uh...” Katara was stunned, and a little confused. “Sure, I guess.”
The boy sat up, and then in a fluid, impossible motion, floated to his feet. Katara and Sokka both stepped away in apprehension and awe.
“ So what’s going on? Where are we?” The boy asked.
“You tell us!” Sokka snapped. “How did you get in the ice? Why aren’t you frozen, or more accurately, dead?” He poked the boy in the side, but the boy pushed away the spear.
“I don’t know.” The boy asked absentmindedly, before a loud chuffing noise emerged from within the crater. Perking up, the boy scrambled back over the ridge, and Sokka and Katara peered after him, mouths dropping open upon seeing a large, white, fuzzy creature stirring at the bottom of the crater.
“Appa! You alright buddy? C’mon, wake up!” The creature moves slowly, and licks the boy, causing him to laugh.
“Wow, wow, whoa. Wait a second. What...is that thing?” Sokka stands up on the crest of the ridge.
“This is Appa,” The boy replied cheerfully. “...My flying bison.”
Sokka rolled his eyes, and snarked back in response. “Yeah, right, and this is Katara, my flying sister.” Katara frowns at her brother, and the boy looks at him in confusion before taking note of their surroundings.
“Woah, do you guys live around here?”
Sokka shifted into a defensive stance, and moved in front of Katara. “Don’t answer that! Did you see that flash of light? He could be trying to signal the Fire Nation.”
“Sokka, you’re being ridiculous. We’re at peace with the Fire Nation, and besides, does he LOOK like a spy for them?”
The boy blinked doe-like at the siblings, and Katara smirked, proving her point. Addressing the boy now, she shrugged, and said “The paranoid one is my brother, Sokka. What’s your name?””
The boy made to answer, but then a massive sneeze erupted from his nose, sending him flying several feet in the air.
Katara and Sokka watched the boy float back down in disbelief, and Katara put the pieces together. “You’re an airbender!”
“Sure am,” The boy smiled. “My name’s Aang.”
“There’s no way...I must be going crazy. I’m going home, where things make sense.” Sokka tried to walk off, but realized quickly that there was no way home, and he groaned loudly.
“Are you guys stuck? Appa and I can give you a ride.” Aang offered.
“Oh, no, we are not getting ON that thing! For all we know, it could eat us.” Sokka protested, but Katara nodded, and the boy offered her his hand, pulling her into the saddle, and not wanting to be left behind, Sokka quickly follows.
“Okay, hold on! Appa, yip yip!”
The sky bison climbs to his feet slowly, and takes a running jump, before landing heavily in the water, creating a large splash.
“I thought you said this thing could fly?” Sokka asked sarcastically.
“He can. He just must be tired from being in the ice.” The boy grinned at Katara, who brushed her hair behind her ear uncomfortably.
“Um...why are you staring at me like that?”
“Oh, uh...I was staring?” The boy blushed, and Katara flushed a little herself. Sokka stuck his tongue out at her.
After a little ways towards the village, Katara started asking questions. “Hey, Aang, I was wondering...since you’re an airbender , do you have any idea what happened to the Avatar?”
Aang tensed slightly, but shook his head. “No, sorry. I don’t know him. I mean, I know people that know him, but I don’t.”
“Okay, I was just cur. ..wait . Know?” Katara caught Aang’s verb tense. Sokka sat up, having caught it as well. “Are you saying the Avatar is still alive?”
Aang frowned, and nodded, before answering. “I guess, why?”
Sokka makes a noise of shock and disgust. “Uh, then where has he been for the last hundred years?”
“What are you talking about?” Aang asks.
“The war. The Fire Nation, where has the Avatar been the whole time, and why didn’t he do anything about it?”
“What war?” Aang stares at them like they’ve lost their minds.
“Okay, I’m starting to think that I’m not the one going crazy!” Sokka exclaimed, and sat back, settling against the rim of the saddle. Katara stared at Aang, trying to understand his confusion, before sitting back herself in silence.
As they continued towards the Water Tribe village, Aang curled up inside the saddle, and fell asleep, trusting Appa to take them where they needed to go. The sleep might even have been restful, if the echoes of lightning and thunder didn’t shatter his dreams.
Miles away from the Water Tribe, a lone Fire Navy ship patrolled at the edge of Fire Nation borders, and a single man stood on the deck, a telescope aimed at the South Pole. Spotting the flash of light in the distance, he smiled to himself, and turned to the soldiers posted on the bow.
“Fetch me a messenger hawk, we have our motive to break the contract with the Water Tribe.”
“Yes, Commander Zhao.”
Back in the Fire Nation, Zuko wandered aimlessly around the royal palace, looking up and admiring the portraits of past Firelords . He was so enarmored with them that he didn’t hear his father come up behind him.
“Zuko, there you are.” Zuko startled, and whirled around, facing the imposing man.
“Prince Ozai , I didn’t hear you coming. I apologize.”
“I would speak with you a moment.”
“Of course, sir.” Internally, Zuko started panicking.
“Walk with me.” Ozai gestured down the hallway, and Zuko complied.
“You start sailing back to the Southern Water Tribe tomorrow, yes?” Ozai asked, already knowing the answer.
“I understand that you’ve acclimated well to being in the South Pole?”
Zuko was suspicious. “It’s taken some adjustment, and it will take a great deal more time to be fully comfortable, but yes, I suppose. I am happy to do so though, in order to fulfill my duty to the throne, and our nation.”
Ozai made a pleased noise. “Yes, that is good to hear. Unfortunately, I must tell you something. I have received a troubling message from a ship posted at our Southern ocean border.”
Zuko was alarmed, but made no indication of such on his face. “What was the message?”
“It seems that the Southern Water Tribe has been keeping a secret, one that violates the terms of our peace treaty.”
“What is the secret?” Zuko asks, concerned.
“It seems that they have been harboring the Avatar.”
Shock and disbelief washed over Zuko, and his mind briefly thought of Katara, the only bender in the village. Had she looked at his scrolls, and learned to firebend?
“How is that possible? The Avatar was killed over a hundred years ago, during the siege on the Air Nomads!” Zuko protested, refusing to believe his father’s words.
“That is what you must determine. You will meet Commander Zhao on your journey back to the Water Tribe, identify the Avatar, and bring them back here. If you deliver them, the Fire Nation will consider the contract between the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation fulfilled, and they will be left alone. But if the Avatar eludes us...”
Ozai trailed off, allowing his tone to speak for him. Zuko realized what his father was saying. If the Avatar was not handed over to the Fire Nation, the Fire Nation would destroy the Southern Water Tribe.
“I will bring the Avatar to you, personally.” Zuko bowed, and Ozai nodded.
“See that you do. After all, your honor as a member of this family depends upon it."
Omg, thank you for everyone that has left kudos or comments! Wow, thank you! I think this is the longest fic I've ever written, and if you've figured it out yet, it's only going to get longer. My intention is to run somewhat in parallel with Book 1 for now, but if I can, I'll go all the way to Book 3, as long as I can, providing college doesn't completely kick my ass. Please keep commenting, they do make me so so so happy!
Chapter 11: Bad Memories Make Good Ones
“Aang...Aang, wake up. Aang!” Katara shook the airbender awake, and he sat up, startled. “Woah, it’s okay. We’re in the village. C’mon, everyone wants to meet you!” She stood up, and Aang nodded, standing and pulling his shirt back on, which someone else had obviously removed.
“Oh, okay.” Katara subtly tried to look away, but couldn’t help but notice the tattoos, that ran all the way from his forehead to the small of his back, spanning his shoulder blades and hips.
She leads him out of the hut, and they pass Sokka who is standing outside, sharpening his boomerang. A moderate assortment of people are standing in front of him, and Katara gestures to the group. “Aang, this is the entire village. Entire village, meet Aang.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Aang bows, but some of the villagers step back or glare in distrust. Aang falters, unsure, but a man steps forward, and returns the greeting.
“And it is nice to meet you. My name is Hakoda, Sokka and Katara are my children. Welcome to the Southern Water Tribe.”
Aang smiles weakly, but can still feel the distrust coming off of the other villagers. “Hi. Umm...why are they looking at me like that?”
An older woman steps up, next to Hakoda, and frowns at him. “You’ll have to forgive us. No one has seen an airbender in the last hundred years. We thought they were extinct, until my grandchildren found you.”
It was Aang’s turn to frown. “Extinct?” Aang questioned, but the woman’s expression didn’t change.
“Aang, this is my grandmother, my father’s mother.”
“Call me Gran-Gran.” The woman deadpans, and Aang tries to smile at her, still considering her words briefly. It’s then that Aang spots his staff leaning against the door of the hut.
“My staff!” Aang cries, bending the air, sending it flying towards him, catching it neatly in his hands.
Gasps emerge from the crowd, and a child whispers “Magic!”
Aang grins, and twirls the staff. “Not magic, airbending. I’m manipulating the air around things to make them move.”
Sokka eyes the staff. “And what is that, a weapon?”
Aang shakes his head. “No, it’s a glider.” Aang releases the fan panels, extending the glider.
“What does it do?” Katara asks, curious.
“It helps me fly!” Aang teases, and Sokka scoffs.
“Uh, last I checked, people can’t fly.”
Aang smirks, and maneuvers the glider into position. “Check again.”
Jumping, Aang sails high into the air, floating in the air, and streaking along the clouds. The crowd marvels at Aang’s abilities, and the children run across the ground, following his shadow. Sokka’s mouth dropped open, and even Hakoda looked at the airbender in surprise.
Aang reveled in the Water Tribe people’s reactions, and lost focus on his surroundings, crashing into a large wall of ice and snow. Toppling to the ground, the snow partially buried Aang, and Katara chuckled, brushing the water off of him. Aang laughed, and he allowed her to pull him up.
“That was amazing!” Katara whispered, and Sokka rolled his eyes, strolling up to them.
“Great,” His tone was annoyed. “Between you, Katara, and Zuko, you three can waste time all day with your freaky bending powers.”
Aang looks at Katara in delight. “You’re a bender?”
Katara smiles a little. “Sort of. Not yet.”
Kana interrupts the group. “Alright, that’s enough of that. We’re losing daylight, and Katara, Sokka, you both have chores.” The two preteens groaned internally, and nodded, following their grandmother away, and Hakoda approached Aang again.
“That was impressive.” Hakoda complimented, and Aang nodded respectfully, thanking the man.
“Thank you. I don’t usually crash though.”
Hakoda chuckled. “I would hope not. But then again, there usually aren’t many things in the air to crash into. My daughter tells me however, that you are not aware of the war that has been going on for a while. Do you mind telling me how old you are?”
Aang nodded, and said “I’m twelve, sir.”
“And where do you come from, Aang?
“The Southern Air Temple. My bison and I were travelling, and we were hit by a storm. We were forced underwater, and I guess the water froze?” Aang tried to cover his story, and Hakoda raised an eyebrow.
“And the monks in the Air Temple haven’t been worried about anything outside of the temple?”
Aang frowned. “I guess so? Before I left, they were talking about troubling signs, but they didn’t say anything specific. I thought they might’ve been talking about the storm that Appa and I ran into though.”
“Hmm. And you’ve had no knowledge about the war that the Fire Nation has waged against the other nations for the last hundred years?”
“What?” Aang was alarmed. “No, that can’t be right! I’ve travelled all over the world, and I’ve never seen any evidence of any war.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible, Aang.” Hakoda said gently. “The war has decimated the Earth Kingdom, and even our own tribe. Fire Navy ships constantly patrol our borders, and two years ago, the Fire Nation army laid siege to the great city of Ba Sing Se, conquering the Earth Kingdom as territory.”
Aang was horrified. “No...” He whispered, almost unable to believe Hakoda. He took off running, leaving the chief standing there, looking sadly after the young boy.
Across the ocean, Zuko stood towards the stern of the ship that gunned quickly away from the shores of the Fire Nation. Unlike the last time he had left his old home, his father and sister had come to see him off, along with his uncle and cousin. In fact the whole court was there, which did not please him the same way it might’ve three months ago.
Seeing his father and sister there on the docks as they got smaller and smaller, Zuko could see his father put his hand on Azula’s pauldron, and she smirked, noticing Zuko’s eyes on the subtle contact. The last time Zuko had let his father touch him had been the day his face was burned.
The casual touch also reminded Zuko of Hakoda, and how he touched his own children.
Zuko had been in the Southern Water Tribe for almost a week, and people were still eyeing him. The former hostages had gone out of their way to avoid speaking to him, and even Kana only did it when she absolutely had to. Only Sokka, Katara, and Hakoda made any effort to talk to him, but it was obvious to the family that despite their agreement, Zuko was still somewhat uncomfortable around Hakoda.
They had guessed why of course, but it became imminently obvious one day when Sokka had begged his dad to join him on a deep-water fishing trip, when a bloat of arctic hippos had been spotted on the rim of the ice field.
Hakoda was adamantly against it. Arctic Hippos were notoriously bad tempered, and dangerous to even the most experienced hunters. A select group of men were going, and Hakoda didn’t want Sokka getting hurt, or accidentally getting in the way. Sokka insisted that he would never become experienced if he didn’t go, and Zuko could see Hakoda getting more and more irritated with his son by the minute.
And then something happened. Hakoda snapped, and he stood up straight, turned to his son, looming over him, and Zuko moved on pure instinct. He didn’t even know why he was protecting the younger boy, but Zuko stepped between father and son, shoving Sokka behind him, and stretching an arm out, palm almost touching Hakoda’s chest.
Hissing, Zuko scowled at Hakoda. “Don’t you dare touch him.”
The reaction was instantaneous. Hakoda stepped backwards, blanching, looking like Zuko had slapped him. Other members of the tribe stilled completely, and those that weren’t staring at Zuko were glancing back and forth between the teenager and his husband, waiting to see what would happen.
“Uh, Zuko...what are you talking about?” Sokka asked timidly, tapping the older boy’s shoulder.
Zuko frowned, and glanced at him, before looking back at Hakoda. “He...was going to hit you.” Zuko tried to explain. Sokka’s eyes widened, and Hakoda’s face shattered.
“No, spirits...no. Zuko, I would never.” Hakoda whispered loudly enough for those closest to him to hear, and Sokka nodded.
“Why would he?” Sokka asked, trying to understand why Zuko thought his father would do such a thing.
Zuko deflated, but didn’t let his guard down. “You weren’t going to hit him?” This time Zuko addressed Hakoda.
Hakoda shook his head, making sure to maintain eye contact with Zuko. “No. I was going to yell at him, and send him off, but no...never.”
Zuko blinked, and stepped aside, feeling self-conscious. “Oh. I...my mistake. I apologize. I thought...” Zuko stammered a little bit, stepping further and further away from both father and son.
“Why would you think any parent would do that?” Sokka thought aloud, and Hakoda winced, glancing sparingly at Zuko’s scar. Sokka followed his father’s eyeline, and suddenly realized that everyone else was thinking.
Zuko suddenly realized that everyone was staring at him, and had to get out of there immediately. He started running, and didn’t stop, even when he heard both Hakoda and Sokka calling after him.
It was almost an hour after the incident that Hakoda found the teenager, who was slightly burrowed underneath a large outcropping of ice a fair distance from the camp. He waved to Bato, who signaled others in the small search party, and Hakoda slowly approached the boy.
“Zuko?” Hakoda called out.
Zuko’s head, which had previously been buried in his knees, snapped up, and he scrambled to his feet, almost sinking in the snow. “Chief Hakoda!”
Hakoda held up his hands, trying to sooth the frantic teen. “It’s alright. You can sit back down. Do you mind if I talk to you for a minute. I won’t get any closer, if you don’t want me to. Is that alright?”
“You can do whatever you want.” Zuko responded, still slightly skittish.
“Not at the expense of you feeling safe.” Hakoda established.
Zuko was silent, and then said “You can come a little closer. But I don’t want to be touched...please.”
“That’s alright. I’ll just sit right here, if that’s okay.” Zuko nodded, and Hakoda settled slowly onto the ice.
“Can we talk about what happened back there?” Hakoda asked.
Zuko shrugged, and asked “Do we have to?”
Hakoda nodded. “I think we do. I thought that was incredibly brave of you, getting between my son and me like that, given what you expected me to do.”
Zuko looked up, startled. “Brave?”
“You were willing to take the hit for him, or block it, if one had been coming. You chose to protect him. I would consider that brave, yes.”
“I...I just didn’t want Sokka to get hurt.” Zuko whispered.
“Like you did?” Hakoda asked, and Zuko’s breath caught in his throat. Hakoda knew. How did he...
“Zuko, did your father do that to you?” Hakoda asked, and after a long pause...Zuko nodded.
“I...yes. I spoke against him, and he...he burned me. I...I’ve never told anyone that.”
“What were you talking about, that would motivate him to do that?” Hakoda asked, even more horrified now with the confirmation of his suspicions.
Zuko said nothing, but his fingers moved to trace the betrothal necklace around his throat, and Hakoda understood.
“Oh...I see. You were against the engagement.”
Zuko’s eyes squeezed closed. “It was my fourteenth birthday. My uncle had just abdicated from the throne, putting my cousin immediately in the line of succession for the throne, and with my father next in line after him, it was considered secure until my cousin would marry and have children. That made both my sister and myself prime material for political matches. As the oldest, I should have expected it to happen, but I guess I just hadn’t anticipated it that soon. I rejected the idea, in front of my grandfather, and my father was furious.”
“And he lashed out, burning your face.” Hakoda filled in the blanks.
“I lost a significant amount of depth perception because I went partially blind in one eye and mostly deaf in one ear because my eardrum burst due to the heat. It took almost a year to be able to regain movement in that side of my face, and even now, my sight and hearing isn’t what it used to be. Outside of my father and myself, no one knew for sure the absolute truth.”
“Why?” Hakoda asked, aghast.
“As powerful as my father is, it still wouldn’t have gone down well if word had gotten out that he purposely disfigured his son outside of anything less than organized combat. It would have permanently damaged his reputation, and that’s why even afterwards, the match benefitted him. Having a scarred son out of the picture would let everyone forget that I even existed next to my perfect sister.” Zuko admitted, spitting out the final words with disgust.
“Well, I can’t speak for him, but I can speak for everyone here when I say that your father is a cruel man, who never should have done that to you. Zuko, I am so sorry.” Hakoda admitted honestly, and Zuko eyed him, trying to determine the honesty of his words.
“And Zuko?” Hakoda continued.
The teenager tensed, but nodded. “Yes?”
“I wanted to say that I really admired your drive to protect my children. You didn’t even hesitate today, despite not even knowing them that well. While we may not be together romantically, that is exactly the kind of quality I would have looked for in a spouse, and I’m grateful for your instinct.”
Zuko was speechless, but nodded once more, and Hakoda stood up, offering the teenager his hand. Zuko took it, and together they walked back to the village, having an even greater understanding of each other than before.
End of Flashback...
“Prince Zuko, sir!” A masked soldier stood to attention next to Zuko, bringing him out of his thoughts.
“The captain says we’re two days out from Commander Zhao’s position. We’re making good time, sir.”
“Very well, thank you.” Zuko nodded, dismissing the soldier, electively ignoring the use of his former title.
Back in the Southern Water Tribe, Hakoda was briefly reminded of the same memory, upon finding another boy hiding under the same outcropping. The airbender was practically frozen, as the light fabric of his tunic did little to insulate his skin, and was still exhausted from the iceberg. Hakoda picked the young boy up and carried him back to the village, putting him back on the bed that Aang had only just woken up in. Eventually, they would get the Air Nomad’s story, they just didn’t realize how much they’ve have to.
Chapter 12: Boxed In
It was a well-known secret that Commander Zhao and the former-Prince Zuko despised each other. What was unknown, however, was why, and unfortunately that reasoning even eluded the two feuding men. You could just explain it away as chemistry, but perhaps Zuko didn’t like how the other man relied too much on cheap, brutal, dishonorable tactics, and Zhao didn’t like how soft the Prince was to the world. How weak he was. Not good qualities of a royal member.
But neither would have revealed their dislike to an outsider when they met at the ocean border of the Fire Nation and the Southern Water Tribe. No, when they greeted each other on the deck of Zhao’s ship, they were nothing but coldly cordial to each other.
“Commander Zhao,” Zuko made a point to speak first. “It is good to see you again.”
“Prince Zuko.” Zhao smiled shallowly, distain clear in his eyes. “Or not, since you renounced that title. Tell me, how should people address you now?”
Zuko shrugged. “I don’t know, actually. You’d have to ask the Fire Sages, but perhaps Ambassador could do for now.”
“Very well, Ambassador. I understand you’ve been briefed what it is we are being tasked to do?”
Zuko nodded. “Identify, or capture the Avatar, and take either he, or she, back to the Fire Nation.”
“Good. As more of an expert on this tribe than anyone else here, is there anyone you believe might already qualify.”
Zuko hesitated. He didn’t want to admit his suspicions of Katara, but he couldn’t lie. “I might. It will depend on if the Avatar is an airbender, as was previously expected, or reborn into the tribes. An indication of age is important.”
Zhao nodded, accepting the answer. “And gender would also be important in that case. Avatar Roku was a man, and the Air Nomads were generally a male-dominated culture. It would be time for a female Avatar had they been reborn in the Water Tribe.”
Zuko silently agreed, and prayed once more to the spirits that Katara wasn’t the Avatar. She was too young for this, too young for what might happen to her.
“Commander, the Southern Water Tribe is in sight.” A soldier posted on the bow of the battleship cried out, and Zhao smiled.
“Commander, if I may? This tribe does not respond well to being presented with masses of soldiers, and an overwhelming military threat. They’ll close ranks, and protect their own. To the death if they have to, and while we have strength in our numbers and combat training, if I can convince them first to reveal who it is, then they might surrender the individual willingly.”
“Thus maintaining the contract.” Zhao surmised, brushing his jawline with his thumb. “Yes, very well. If we can avoid conflict, we will, but we are not leaving without someone. And you will be joining us on our journey back to the Fire Nation, yes?”
“Yes, as I am responsible for maintaining the treaty.” Zuko established, making sure that Zhao was aware of his motives.
“Understood. Therefore, in order to proceed, you will disembark alone?’ Zhao questioned.
Zuko shook his head. “No, myself and two soldiers should disembark. At a certain distance from any Water Tribe members, I will tell them to wait, and approach the chief of the tribe alone. We will discuss the issue, and we will negotiate the surrender of the Avatar to our custody. If they refuse, I will signal the soldiers to demonstrate a reminder of Fire Nation power, without damaging any buildings, or hurting anyone. I will give them a second chance, and if they refuse again, they will have permission to attack.”
Zhao blinked, having been surprised at the willingness on Zuko’s part to establish contingencies of attack, but agreed, and motioned for two soldiers to volunteer and escort Zuko. Glancing out at the bow of the ship, Zuko silently hoped that he’d never need them.
Aang woke up, confused for a moment, because of how warm he was compared to how cold he had been when falling asleep, but he then recognized that he was back in the hut that he had woken up in last time. They must’ve found him and brought him back.
Just at that moment, Katara entered the hut, and immediately realized Aang was awake. “Aang!” She cried, setting down the water jug that she had been carrying.
“Hi, Katara. Sorry, I...”
“Don’t worry about it.” She said quickly. “I’m just glad you’re okay. My dad found you passed out in the snow, he brought you back before you froze to death. I guess he told you about the war?”
Aang nodded, and held his head in his hands. “Yeah, I don’t understand how I didn’t know about it!”
Katara bit her lip. “Well, I think I have a theory. My grandmother was right when she said no one has seen an airbender in over 100 years. That’s how long I think you were in that iceberg.”
“What?” Aang startled. “That’s impossible! Do I look like a hundred-twelve-year old man to you?”
“It makes sense. The war is a hundred years old, and definitely obvious. It started not long after the death of the last Avatar, which was also over a hundred years ago, so the only way you couldn’t have known about it, is if you were in the ice the whole time.”
“Oh, man.” Aang slumped on the floor. “I can’t believe it. A hundred years!” He clutched his face, and groaned, and Katara had a thought.
“Come on. I know what might make you feel better.”
Aang frowned, but followed her out of the hut. She walked out of the small camp, and a ways towards a coastline, without saying a word. Aang followed her, confused, until he heard a small squeak. His eyes widened, and a grin emerged on his face. Looking around, Aang finally spotted what they were heading towards, and took off running. “Penguins!!!”
Katara chuckled, and followed him, quickly coming across a colony of otter-penguins. Aang happily waddled around, following the creatures, who scuttled away from him, but he wasn’t deterred. He chased and pounced, but missed the penguin, and belly-flopped on the snow.
“He, I have a way with animals.” With that, Aang stood, and started mimicking the penguins, causing Katara to laugh.
“Okay, okay, how about this, I’ll help you catch a penguin if you can teach me anything about bending.”
Aang gets close enough to catch another penguin, but misses again. “Deal, but I don’t know anything about waterbending. Can’t someone in your tribe teach you?”
“No,” Katara saddened. “You're looking at the only waterbender in the South Pole. What I know about bending, I’ve had to learn from benders of other types.”
“That isn’t right...” Aang looked away guiltily, before remembering something. “But what about the North Pole? They must have benders there right?”
Katara nodded. “My dad says so, but we’ve been cut off from our sister tribe by the Fire Nation. They’re on the other side of the world, and controlled water separates the two of us. Trying to travel there, just for me to learn waterbending, is risky, and I’ve never left the South Pole.”
“Ah, but I have a flying bison. We could travel by air, instead of water, and then we could find you a teacher!” Aang encouraged.
“I guess. I’d have to think about it.”
“Okay. Well, while you think about it, can you teach me to catch one of these penguins?” Aang begged, and Katara smiled.
“Okay, okay. Listen closely, my young pupil. Catching penguins is an ancient, and sacred art. Observe!” She pulled a small fish out of her sleeve, and tossed it to Aang. The penguins swarmed Aang, jostling each other to get the fish, and knocked him over.
“Hi, hi, woah, hi! Ha ha.”
Now that the penguins were close enough, both Aang and Katara were able to clutch onto the back of two penguins, and the penguins took off running, sliding on their bellies. They sail amongst the ice, and occasionally in the air, racing and laughing.
“Oh, wow, I haven’t done this since I was a kid!” She cried, thinking briefly that she wished she’d done this with Zuko. He might’ve enjoyed it.
“You still are a kid!” Aang responds, and finally they hit shallow land, and the penguins shake off the children, and waddle off. The two are laughing on the ground, before something catches Aang’s eye.
“Wait...what is that?”
Katara follows his gaze, which tracks all the way out to the water, where she spots a Fire Navy ship approaching the village.
“Oh!’ She gasps, and Aang turns to her, concerned. “C’mon, we have to go!” She grabs his arm, and takes off running, back towards the village.
“Wait, Katara! What is it, what was that?” Aang cries, glancing back at the ship.
“It’s a Fire Nation battleship. They must be here to...” Katara never finishes her sentence, feeling the vibrations through her feet as the metal hull makes contact with the icy landmass.
“Are they here to attack?” Aang asks.
“No, I don’t think so. But come on, we have to hurry.”
The two children dash back to the tribe, where Katara can see the rest of the village is already assembled to greet the ship. But before she can join them, out of nowhere, Sokka stops them, and drags them both into the family hut, where Hakoda and Kana are already waiting.
“Where were you two?” Sokka cries, glaring at them.
“We were penguin-sledding.” Aang responds happily.
Hakoda wrinkles his eyebrows, but shakes his head. “Never mind. Katara, Aang, I need you to do something for me.”
The three children turn to their father, confused by his serious tone. “Okay, sure. What is it Dad?”
“While I hope the Fie Nation is just here for the reason I think, we cannot rule out the possibility that they already know about Aang. While that ship is here, Katara, I need you to keep him hidden, as they will not like the fact that an airbender, any airbender, is here.”
“Why not?” Aang asks, angry.
“Because they will think you’re the Avatar.” Hakoda replies, gazing evenly at the twelve-year-old.
“And that’s a bad thing?” Aang shoots back.
“It will be for you.” Hakoda deadpans. “If you’re suspected of being the Avatar, they will try to capture you, and possibly even kill you. And they might also threaten the village for harboring you.”
Aang was speechless. He knew he’d have to admit the truth sooner or later, and Hakoda could tell the boy was keeping something a secret.
“I...” Aang started out, weakly. “And if I am the Avatar?” He asks, and Kana and Hakoda exchange looks. Sokka and Katara look at him in shock.
“Then I hope for your sake, that they don’t know you’re here. Aang, if they do, I can’t protect you, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Dad!” Katara cries, turning on her father.
“No, Katara. Aang if I can, I will keep you safe. But my village has already been through enough in this war, and I cannot sacrifice them for you. I will do what I can, but I must put my people first. I’m sorry. I hope you understand.
Aang nods. “I do. And thank you Chief Hakoda. I wouldn’t want anyone’s safety compromised because of me. I will stay here for now, but if they want to take me, I will go with them.”
Hakoda nodded, and Katara’s face took on a mixed look of anger and sadness.
“Thank you.” Hakoda said, earnestly, and turned to his son. “Sokka, I want you to come with me when we greet the Fire Nation, and if we have to, I want you to bring Aang to them.”
Sokka’s mouth dropped open. “But Dad, what about...”
Hakoda held up his hands, stopping Sokka from continuing. “Sokka, please. Just do as I ask.” Sokka nods, unable to refuse his father because of the sad look in his eyes.
Someone knocks on the outside of the hut, and Bato enters. “The ship has stopped, the gangway will open any minute.”
Standing, Hakoda and Sokka leave the hut, quickly trailed by Bato. Kana stays a moment, before turning away and picks up a leather bag.
“Gran-Gran, what are you doing?”
Kana raises an eyebrow, before looking her granddaughter in the eye. “On the off-chance that you are who you say you are, and end up in the clutches of the Fire Nation, young man, you have a responsibility to fulfill. The world has been without hope for a long time now, and the Avatar is the only chance any of us have of escaping the tyranny and destruction wrought by the Fire Nation. You came back for a reason young man, you have a destiny to fulfill. And like it or not, my grandchildren’s destinies are intertwined with yours. Therefore, if you do get captured, I suggest that they take that big fluffy creature out there, and follow you until you escape, something I imagine will be fairly easy for you.”
Katara’s eyes brightened, and she flung herself at her grandmother. “Oh, Gran Gran, thank you!”
Aang smiled at the older woman. “Thank you as well, ma’am.”
Kana shook her head and addressed him, locking her eyes with his. “The Fire Nation is complex, and corrupted. I believe they have good people, but there are far too many bad ones. You must overcome them and properly stop this war, and in order to do that, you must reunite the world under a true agreement of peace. All nations, united. I ask that of you, can you do that?”
Aang bit his lip, but nodded. “I can try.”
Kana glared at him, and Aang flinched. “You either will or you won’t. Trying is not enough. Do you understand me?”
Aang could feel the importance of her words. “Yes, I do. And I will. I promise.”
Satisfied, Kana backed off, and continued packing. “Good. In that case, Katara, help me pack your brother’s things as well, you both will need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
Chapter 13: The Trade
Outside the hut, Zuko was walking down the gangway when he spotted Sokka, Hakoda, and Bato emerge from the hut. He noticed that Katara was nowhere to be seen, and the knot that had formed in his stomach tightened. Zuko motioned for the soldiers to stay, and kept walking closer to his husband.
“Zuko, it is good to have you back.” Hakoda smiled warmly, but Zuko could see something in his eyes suggesting there was a problem.
Trying to force himself to relax, Zuko smiled back. “I am glad to be back...but I can’t stay.” Sokka’s head snapped towards Zuko, and he could see the look of despair on the younger boy’s face.
Hakoda frowned, and asked “Why not?” Was something else wrong?
Zuko shook his head and said “The Fire Nation received intelligence that the Avatar is here, in the Southern Water Tribe. I have orders to deliver him, or her, to the Firelord, immediately.”
Hakoda’s shoulders fell. He briefly wondered if he should deny Aang’s existence, but Zuko kept speaking.
“Harboring the Avatar, keeping them from the Fire Nation is considered a breach of the peace contract between our people. Should you keep the Avatar from them, those soldiers have orders to burn down the entire village...and everyone in it. Our marriage will be annulled and the Fire Nation will officially declare war on both Water Tribes. Hakoda , I hate to ask this of you, but if you know who the Avatar is, you have to tell me, and I have to take them.”
Zuko’s voice trembled a little bit, and Hakoda was once more struck by his husband’s age. At some point, he had forgetten that underneath all that armor, Zuko was only seventeen, and now caught directly in the middle of what was about to be a horrific conflict. Hakoda nodded to Zuko, and then glanced at Sokka, who deflated, and walked back to the hut.
Zuko pleaded with Hakoda via his eyes to forgive him, when movement from within the hut emerged. Sokka led out Katara...and a young boy whom Zuko had never seen before, bald, wearing bright clothes...and had airbender tattoos on his head. Zuko inhaled sharply, and Hakoda glanced at him, concerned.
Katara stopped walking, standing next to her village, and smiled sadly at Zuko. He looked scared, she realized.
Sokka and Aang kept walking, until finally they were both standing next to Hakoda . Aang took in the teenager in front of him, whom he was not expecting to lead a military vessel, before glancing at the two, fully-armored soldiers by the gangway.
Zuko cleared his throat. “My...ah-hem, my name is Ambassador Zuko of the Fire Nation. You...are the Avatar?”
Aang realized Zuko was talking to him. “Yes, yes I am.”
Zuko blinked. “What’s your name?”
Aang was surprised. “My name is Aang.”
“You’re an airbender ?” Zuko kept questioning.
“Yes. If I go with you, do you promise to leave these people alone?” Aang was defensive, and while Hakoda opened his mouth to speak, Zuko cut him off.
“Yes, we do. We have a peace treaty with the Southern Water tribe, which is still in effect unless you do not come with us, compliantly. Since you stand here of your own volition, I see no reason to hurt anyone.” Zuko tried to emphasize the last word, hoping that Aang would consider himself amongst that sect of people.
“Okay. So now what?” Aang asks.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few more questions first?” Zuko continued, and Aang’s surprise grew.
“Okay, I guess.”
“How do you know you’re the Avatar?” Zuko asked, noting the boy’s physical appearance, specifically his age.
“The monks told me.” Aang replied.
“What monks?” Zuko pressed.
“The senior monks of the Southern Air Temple.” Aang elaborated.
“You didn’t know because you accidentally bent an element other than the one of which you were naturally predisposed to?” Zuko tried to make sense of the boy’s story.
“No. But after I left the Southern Air Temple, I. ..something happened, and my body seemed to act on it’s own, like years of instinct took over, and saved me from the storm I was caught in.” Aang frowned, not sure how to explain what had actually happened that night.
Recognition emerged on Zuko’s face, and he nodded. “I see. So you’re not a fully-realized Avatar yet? You’ve only mastered air?”
Aang scowled. “Yes, but you shouldn’t underestimate me, I...”
“I don’t want to hurt you, Avatar.” Zuko cut him off, and Aang’s mouth hung open. He glanced at Hakoda , who nodded.
“But you still want to take me prisoner.” Aang surmised, both confused and apprehensive.
Zuko nodded. “Yes...I have to. I’m truly sorry, but regardless of your ability, the simple fact that you are the Avatar is a threat to my homeland, and while I wish I didn’t have to do this, you have to come with me.”
Aang nodded, accepting Zuko’s words, and Zuko gestured for Aang to walk towards the soldiers, and the ship. Aang looked back, seeing Katara, Sokka, and the rest of the tribe standing and watching. The soldiers cuffed Aang, and escorted him on board. Zuko stayed with Hakoda a moment longer, and spoke once more.
“I’ll protect him, if I can.” Zuko tried to explain, but Hakoda shh’ed him.
“I understand.” Hakoda said, and placed his hand on Zuko’s shoulder. Katara approached the group, biting her lip.
“Zuko, I. ..there’s a plan.” She blurted out, realizing she had to tell him. Zuko blinked, but nodded.
“For him to escape?” He asked.
Katara nodded and said “He has a flying bison. It can outpace the ship, if Aang is free long enough, he can get to him, but Sokka and I will be following to make sure that happens at a point where the ship can’t turn back.”
“Wait, what?” Hakoda spun to his daughter, and Sokka looked at her as if to say “We’re doing what, now?”
Zuko nodded, and said “That could work. As soon as we get to the edge of the icefield would be the best place. The icebergs will cover your approach, and then after that, I can reason with the ship’s commander, saying that there aren’t any waterbenders , and as an unrealized Avatar, if he’s going anywhere, he’s going to the Northern Water Tribe. They’re defensible, you’ll be safer there.”
Hakoda glanced at his husband in surprise. “Wait, you’re really not going to take him to the Fire Nation? You’re going to help?”
Zuko scoffed. “The only reason this is happening is because my father ordered it. If my cousin knew, this wouldn’t be happening at all. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner that kid becomes a fully-realized Avatar, the safer the world will be.”
“Wait...your cousin doesn’t know? I thought you trusted him?” Sokka asked, confused.
Zuko looked at his feet, before looking back at Hakoda and his children in resignation. “My cousin and I suspected prior to the coronation that at some point, my father intends, whether violently or not to take over the throne. He will not be satisfied until the world is under his power, and he will use any means necessary to get it, including intentionally sabotaging my cousin by keeping crucial information from him. I never got the chance to tell my cousin about this, and it’s likely he won’t find out any time soon. “
The ship’s horn blew, and Zuko looked back, realizing he would have to go soon. Katara had been quiet for most of the conversation by that point, but then something occurred to her.
“Wait, Zuko, if you help Aang escape, does that mean you’ll come with us?” She asked, hopeful, and Sokka perked up. Even Hakoda looked hopeful, but Zuko shook his head, crushing both of their hopes.
“No, I will need to stay behind, and cover my tracks. If they find out I’m involved, they won’t just be hunting an Avatar anymore, they’ll be hunting a traitor, and no matter who is on the throne, for that I’ll be executed if caught. Besides, if I stay behind, I can make sure they won’t retaliate against the Water Tribe for your involvement. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re right. And Zuko, thank you.” Hakoda knew that the teenager’s loyalty to them was a hard choice, and silently thanked all of the spirits for sending him to them. “Just be safe, please.”
Zuko nodded, and looked back at the ship. “I have to go. You should wait a little while before leaving to make sure the lookouts don’t see you. Good luck, Katara and Sokka. I hope we will see each other again soon.”
Bowing slightly, Zuko walked back to the vessel, trying to ignore his desire to get a hug from his new family, and settled slightly for feeling the comfortable weight of his necklace as he silently plotted how to betray his country, and get away with it.
Aang was led through the metal ship to a large room with maps and other navigation equipment, where a tall man with greying sideburns stood. He could tell the man was in charge, as the authority he exuded practically smothered the room.
The man smirked and said “So this is the Avatar. An airbender I see. Tell me, Avatar, how did you escape the defeat of your people?”
Aang flinched, and then steeled himself. “Why, afraid you missed some?”
The man laughed. “Oh no, I firmly do believe that you are the last airbender , of that I have no doubt. No, I ask so I can make sure that you do not escape me.”
“I don’t believe that’s something you can prevent...uh...sorry, don’t know your name.” Aang defended himself, before faltering.
“Of course,” The man straightened. “How rude of me. I am Commander Zhao, I am in charge of this vessel, and tasked with bringing you back to the Firelord. And do you have a name, Avatar.”
Aang hesitated, before deciding there was no harm in revealing the information. “My name is Aang.”
“Avatar Aang.” The commander tasted the words, and the door opened, revealing Ambassador Zuko.
“Are you satisfied, Commander Zhao?” Zuko asked, noticing Aang still standing there.
The commander nodded. “I trust there was no hesitation on the Southern Water Tribe’s part to hand him over?”
“None. The treaty stands.” Zuko confirmed.
“Pity. Personally, I would’ve liked to wipe that pathetic tribe off the map.” Zhao thought aloud, and Zuko scowled. Aang bristled.
“That pathetic tribe as you so called them was responsible for a significant amount of damage done to your ships, Commander, were they not, only two years ago? Interesting, given their sailboats are hardly able to keep pace with our battle cruisers?”
It was the Commander’s turn to scowl. “Yes, they were. But tell me, Ambassador Zuko, you’re not just saying that to try and protect that insignificant village. You would find yourself quite irrelevant without that marriage of yours, now that you’ve renounced your claim to the throne.”
Aang’s eyes widened, and he glanced at Zuko, surprised. Zuko gave nothing away though and responded. “My uncle also renounced his claim, yet I find that he is hardly irrelevant to the current government.”
“That is true. Very well. Why don’t you show Avatar Aang here where he’ll be staying for the next week or so, Ambassador Zuko. We will be casting off soon.”
Zuko nodded, and motioned for the soldiers escorting Aang to follow him. They led the young boy back through the ship, into a modified cell in the main cargo bay, which the soldiers roughly shoved Aang into. Zuko dismissed the soldiers, and waited until they were alone before addressing the airbender.
“Katara told me about your plan to escape. I understand they plan to use an animal of some kind to catch up with the ship?”
Aang startled, looking at Zuko in surprise. “Uhh...what?”
Zuko looked around before reaching around his neck, and pulling something blue from underneath his armor. He passed it through the bars of the cage, and Aang realized it was a necklace.
“Katara wears a necklace like this.” Aang whispers.
“Yes, she wears her grandmother’s, and it was worn by her mother when her parents got engaged. This was given to me when I got married.”
"Oh...” Aang whispered softly. “So you are trying to protect the Southern Water Tribe.”
Zuko nodded. “Yes. I don’t support the damage my country has inflicted on the world, and I think it’s only a matter of time before it gets worse. Can I...” He gestured to the necklace.
“Oh, sure.” Aang passed it back, and the teenager fixed it back around his neck.
“I will need to go soon, but when you stop hearing the scrape of the ice on the ship’s hull, go up those stairs, and turn right, go down the hallway until you come to a lone door with a wheel lock on it on your left. That takes you to the main deck, facing the bow of the ship. On your left once you get out there, there’s a spot meant for gangway planks, with a ladder affixed to the side of the ship. You should be able to hang off that until Sokka and Katara come and get you, just make sure you don’t get seen.”
Aang mouthed the directions, trying to remember them, and Zuko checked the lock on the cage.
“Can you open this with your airbending ?” He asked.
Aang nodded, and said “I should be able to. Thank you, for your help.”
Zuko shook his head. “Don’t thank me. Just do me a favor. Sokka and Katara are important to me, and they will risk everything to help you. Make sure to pay them back by protecting them, and protecting the rest of the world.”
Aang was speechless for a moment, so all he could do was nod, and satisfied, Zuko stepped away from the cage.
“Good luck Avatar.” The teenager said, before leaving Aang alone with his thoughts, hearing only the scraping ice echo throughout the ship.
Chapter 14: Northward Bound
Okay, so Aang might have overestimated himself when he said he could get out of the cage. Funneling air into the lock proved very difficult given the weight of the mechanism, and eventually, Aang just froze the lock to kick the door open. If only he’d then used airbending to stop the door from crashing onto the metal floor...making a very loud sound.
The guards heard it almost immediately, and came running in, which made escaping without being seen a concept of the past. Aang sent the soldiers tumbling, and dashed for the stairs, trying to remember what Zuko had said about the directions. Luckily, Aang’s memory proved true, and he found the door to the main deck...with five Fire Nation soldiers shouting and causing alarm.
By the time Aang reached the main deck, firebenders were already lined up, ready to stop him, and Aang had to think fast to avoid getting burned to a crisp. Conjuring the air scooter, Aang rammed into the soldiers, running loops around them, and that’s when Commander Zhao appeared.
Without his glider, Aang knew he wouldn’t be able to get very far, and it appeared that Zhao had come to the same conclusion. Looking around for any indication of what he could do, Aang realized the fire braziers on deck were sending up large clouds of smoke, and directed the smoke back down, entombing the commander in a cloud of ash, distracting him. That’s when Aang heard Appa, and he looked up to see the bison swoop majestically over the ship.
The Fire Nation soldiers shouted in surprise, directing their attention upwards, and Aang propelled himself upwards, floating gently onto Appa’s head.
“Hey guys!” Aang waved at Katara and Sokka, who sat in the saddle on the back of the sky bison. Sokka’s knuckles were turning white, clutching the side of the saddle, trying desperately not to look down. They could hear shouting coming from the deck of the ship, and the three glanced at the deck, where a trebuchet was being erected to try and hit Appa from the air.
“Uh, Aang, can we get out of here?” Katara asked, nervous.
“Sounds good to me!” Aang replied, and took the reigns, navigating Appa to fly north. They quickly outpaced the ship, leaving Zuko, and the South Pole far behind.
Back on board, Zuko watched as the Commander raged over Aang’s escape, privately making bets with himself on whether smoke would start coming out of Zhao’s ears.
“Can someone explain to me how a boy, one who had no weapons, no knowledge of our ship, and no help...GOT AWAY?”
The assembled officers said nothing. Zhao paced around, still fuming, before stopping. “Turn the ship around, go back to the South Pole.”
Zuko interrupted before anyone moved. “No. Going back to the South Pole will waste time, and daylight. The night will soon be upon us, and navigating the ice field in the dark is near impossible. We risk damaging the ship, and that gives the Avatar even more of a head start. The smartest thing to do is keep following him, and figure out where he’s going.”
Zhao glared at Zuko, but didn’t contradict him. “For all we know, the Southern Water Tribe deliberately aided the Avatar in his escape. That transgression should not be ignored.”
“And for all we know, they had nothing to do with it. Do you want to take the chance of losing him for a baseless accusation ?” Zuko countered.
Zhao’s scowl deepened. “Then where would you recommend we go , Ambassador Zuko?” The title was used mockingly, but Zuko ignored Zhao.
“ I spoke to him briefly before he was taken into custody. He’s only mastered airbending . Which means he will be looking for a master waterbender , in order to co ntinue the cycle. Air, Water, Earth, Fire . As there are no waterbenders left in the South Pole …”
Zhao finished the thought. “He’s heading north. To the Northern Water Tribe. ”
Zuko nodded, and Zhao looked pensive for a moment before smiling briefly to himself. “Very well. I assume he’ll take a route through the territories. They won’t be able to travel over water the entire time. We’ll send out hawks to outposts along the coast of the Earth Kingdom to look out for the animal, and send back reports of their location. In the meantime, we will sail back to Fire Nation waters and coordinate with a fleet, and put together an assault to breach the wall of the Northern Water Tribe.”
Zuko had agreed with Zhao up until that last point. “Excuse me?”
Zhao smirked evilly at Zuko. “If the Avatar reaches the Northern Water tribe before we reach him, and they accept him within their walls, they violate the contract. And then, Ambassador Zuko, both Tribes are free reign.”
Sokka was very uncomfortable for the first few hours. And he made sure everyone on the bison knew that until finally he was certain that Appa was not going to suddenly fall out of the sky. And privately, Katara was very relieved when he did come to that conclusion, even if she’d had the same fear herself initially.
“So...” Aang started talking. “That Ambassador. Why did neither of you tell me that you guys knew him?”
The siblings glanced at each other, before Katara spoke. “I guess it never came up, really. Two years ago, our dad led most of the men in our village to raid Fire Navy ships carrying cargo and soldiers to the Earth Kingdom. But while they were gone, the Fire Nation conquered the Earth Kingdom, and then most of the men were captured, and held in prison. Our tribe would critically suffer if they didn’t come back, and so the Water Tribes, in the first act of solidarity in years, negotiated a peace treaty, that hinged upon the marriage between a royal candidate from both nations. Zuko is the oldest cousin of the new Firelord, so he was chosen, and our dad was the only viable candidate from either of the Water Tribes.”
Aang turned to Katara in shock. “Wait, your dad? The ambassador is married to your DAD?”
Sokka nodded. “Yeah. They got married three months ago, and then a couple weeks ago, the old Firelord , Zuko’s grandfather, died, and Zuko had to go back to the Fire Nation for his cousin’s coronation, otherwise you probably would’ve met him the day we met you.”
“But, Ambassador Zuko can’t be any older than 18!” Aang exclaimed, considering the age difference between the two men.
“Seventeen actually.” Katara corrected, and Aang blanched further. Realizing what he was thinking, she rushed to correct him. “It’s a political relationship only. They trust each other, but there’s nothing between them romantically. If anything, Zuko is more like a brother to us than a parent.”
Aang relaxed slightly. “Oh, okay. But what does the Fire Nation get out of the marriage?”
“ Whaddya mean?” Sokka asked.
Aang elaborated. “Well, it seems to me like the Water Tribes benefitted excessively from the treaty. If they have the superior military force, and resources, why would they care about releasing some prisoners and negotiating a peace with an enemy that doesn’t pose a threat to them? Why marry off a member of the royal family for nothing?”
Sokka was speechless, considering Aang’s point. “I. ..I don’t know. But Zuko seemed to think there was a reason.”
“Hmm. That military guy didn’t seem to like Zuko very much.” Aang supposed.
“What military guy?” Katara asked.
“The ship commander, I think his name was Zhao? Yeah, Zhao. Tall, beefy, sideburns.” Aang recalled a mental image of the man, listing his most obvious features.
“Why do you think Zhao doesn’t like Zuko?” Sokka asked his sister. “It’s kind of impossible NOT to like Zuko!”
"I don’t know, Sokka, but I think that’s a conversation we’d have to have with Zuko. For now, let’s discuss our plan from here on out, starting by asking you some questions, Aang, if you don’t mind.”
“Okay, like what?” Aang responded cheerfully, looking down at the ocean below.
“Like why you didn’t tell us you were the Avatar when we met?” Katara’s tone sharpened, but she was mostly just curious. Aang flinched anyways.
“Yeah, that’s a good point. We knew you were an airbender and all, but why hide being the Avatar?”
The two older children looked at the monk expectantly, and Aang curled up, slumping.
“Because I never wanted to be.” He murmured , just loudly enough for them to hear.
“But Aang...the world has been waiting for the Avatar to return...and put an end to this war.”
“And how am I supposed to do that? I haven’t mastered any of the other elements.” Aang snapped.
Katara blinked at his slight hostility. “Well, according to legend, you first need to master water, then earth, and then fire, right?
Aang nodded hesitantly. “Yeah, that’s what the monks told me.”
“So, if we go to the North Pole, we can find someone to teach you!” She brightened, and Aang smiled at her enthusiasm.
“We can learn it together!” He encouraged, and she smiled widely at him.
“And Sokka, I’m sure you’ll get to knock some Fire Nation soldier heads together.” Katara tried to incite her brother into participating, and he smirked.
“I’d like that actually...I’d like that a lot.” He mused.
Aang clapped his hands together, and floated himself towards the saddle. “Okay, well, first, before we can head to the Northern Water Tribe, we have serious business to attend to.” Aang pulled a map out of one of the rolls tied down on the saddle. “Here. Here. And here.” He pointed at different locations, in Air Nomad and Earth Kingdom territory.”
“What’s there?” Sokka asked innocuously.
“Well, that’s the Southern Air Temple, where I’m from. I want to go back, and see the temple. Maybe there are still monks living there. Then we can have some fun. Here we can ride the hopping llamas, and then finally here, we can surf on the backs of the giant koi fish!”
“The Southern Air Temple? What’s that like?” Katara asked.
“Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s built high up on top of a mountain, so only the sky bison and air nomads can get up there.”
“That seems inconvenient.” Sokka commented, and Aang shook his head.
“Not really. We grow most of our food, and natural springs send water high up the mountain. We have everything we need, so there’s no reason to go down, unless we’re travelling somewhere.”
“Travel? You guys travelled?” Katara queried.
“Oh, yeah! All over the world. The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, even the Fire Nation. I made a lot of friends, everywhere.”
“Wow! So how far away is the temple?”
“Not too far, I think. We should be able to reach there by nightfall, and we can see the sunset from the mountain peak.”
In the end, they made really good time, and reached the mountain range nearly an hour before dark. As they got closer to the temple, Katara realized how quiet it was, and grew concerned.
“Um, Aang. I know you’re hoping we’ll find other Airbenders at the temple, but I want you to prepare for what we might find there instead.”
“Like what?” Aang smiled, confused.
“Well, the Fire Nation is ruthless. You know they could’ve destroyed our village if you didn’t agree to be captured, and before that...in raids, well, they killed our mother. They could have done the same to your people.”
“No, Katara, that’s impossible. The only way, to any air temple, is by a flying bison. And I doubt the Fire Nation has any flying bison.” Aang rubbed his hands in Appa’s fur. “Besides, you don’t know they were killed. Your grandmother only said no one had seen an airbender in a hundred years, but that might mean they just escaped and stayed in hiding.”
Katara tried to talk, but she realized she was losing Aang’s attention. And then he gasped, and pointed, exclaiming “There it is!”
The siblings looked out in the direction Aang was pointing, and saw a massive structure of towers clustered tightly together on top of a mountain.
“Wow, it’s incredible!” Katara said breathlessly. Appa made a happy noise, and Aang smiled.
“Yeah, buddy, we’re home.” And then he frowned a little. “Huh, I would’ve expected to see a lot of bison flying around. Maybe they’re all asleep.”
Sokka glanced at his sister, a concerned look on his face. They flew up to the base of the temple, and Aang provided commentary on the different locations and what they were used for.
“Over there, my friends and I would play airball. We’d stand on top of those posts, in front of those rotating doors, and try to bend a ball through the other person’s door. It’s a lot of fun...for an airbender of course. I’m not sure how’d you play without being one.”
Appa landed in an open courtyard, that was decorated with a statue, and Aang perked up, recognizing who it was a monument to. “Hey, guys! I want you to meet someone!”
He ran up to the statue, and Sokka and Katara climbed out of the saddle, landing clumsily on the ground.
“Who’s that?” Sokka asked.
“This is my master, Monk Gyatso! He taught me everything I know, he’s the greatest airbender in the world.”
Aang looked down at his feet, realizing that even if Gyatso had survived a Fire Nation attack, he’d have died a long time ago.
“You must miss him.” Katara comforted him.
“Yeah...there’s something I have to do. There’s someone I’m ready to meet.”
Aang led the way through the temple, before coming across a large set of doors. An intricate mechanism kept the doors shut.
“Wait, you think there’s someone in there?” Sokka asked, brushing a hand over the doors.
“Yes. The monks told me that when I was ready, I would come here to meet someone who would be able to help me understand about being the Avatar.”
“So how do you get in? Is there a key or something, because, uh...these doors ain’t budging.” Sokka pressed his entire weight against the doors to prove his point, grunting and whining for emphasis.
“The key, Sokka...” Aang smiled, and shifted his weight into a stance. “...is airbending .” Thrusting his arms out in front of him, Aang sends a wave of air into the mechanism, manipulating the air pressure inside and rotating the bolts, unlocking the door.
The door slowly, and loudly, swung open, and the trio of children were greeted...by darkness.
Walking inside, they let their eyes adjust to the room, and they realized they were surrounded by statues.”
“Aww.” Sokka groaned.
“What?” Katara asked exasperatedly, taking in all of the statues in front of her.
“I was hoping someone had been surviving in here, and had rations of food to share. I’m hungry.”
Katara rolled her eyes, and then focused on Aang, who was moving from statue to statue. “Who are all these people?” She asked.
“I don’t know...but they somehow seem familiar. Look, that one’s an airbender .” He pointed at a statue close to the center of the room, recognizing they were arranged in a spiral out from the center.
“Oh yeah, and the one next to them is a waterbender. Look, they’re lined up in a pattern. Air, Water, Earth...Fire. Oh, it’s the Avatar cycle!”
Aang slapped his forehead. “Of course, these must be my past lives! They’re Avatars! Wow, there are so many!” His eyes tracked upwards, seeing the spiral of statues extend all the way into darkness.
“Past lives? You believe that stuff?” Sokka asked, skeptical.
“It’s true, when the Avatar dies, he’s reincarnated into the next nation in the cycle.” Katara explained patiently. Then she noticed Sokka was frowning, and followed his gaze to look at Aang, who seemed almost hypnotized by the newest statue.
“Aang, are you okay?” Katara asked, but the airbender didn’t respond.
“Aang?” She waved her hand in front of his face. “Aang, snap out of it!” She exclaimed, trying to get his attention.
“Huh?” Aang’s eyes refocused.
“Who is that?” Sokka asked, taking in the statue.
“That’s Avatar Roku, the Avatar before me.” Aang responded on instinct, not really sure how he knew the man’s name.
“You were Fire Nation? No wonder I didn’t trust you when we first met.”
“You trusted Zuko pretty quickly.” Katara pointed out.
“Yeah, well, Zuko’s different.” Sokka sniped towards his sister.
That’s when a loud chirping noise echoed around the chamber.
The last time Zuko had been in this room, Zuko’s grandfather had been sitting on the throne in front of him, during a final, formal farewell before leaving for the Southern Water Tribe. It seemed bizarre now to see his cousin sitting on the ornate throne, but Zuko constantly had to remind himself that it wasn’t the Firelord that he should be paying attention to.
Zhao was the only person standing as he outlined the plan he had already constructed for a full invasion into the Northern Water Tribe. In three weeks, four whole fleets would lead a coordinated approach to the Northern Tribe’s front gates, with a fully-prepared ground invasion force for the breach of the wall, and mobile tank divisions to cause further internal damage.
Many of the surrounding generals and admirals looked rather intrigued by the proposal, and Zuko knew that Zhao would probably receive a promotion for this. But Zuko’s own concern was also mirrored on some of the best tacticians in the room, including his uncle.
“Forgive me, Commander Zhao, however I find many issues with your approach, if you don’t mind clearing some things up for me?” Iroh interrupted, and Zhao grimaced before smiling respectfully.
“Of course, General Iroh.”
“The idea of invading the Northern Water Tribe is a risky one, especially given that they do not yet have the Avatar, which makes this entire discussion pre-emptive. The idea of doing so on their turf, during this time of year makes it worse, given that a grand majority of the attack would occur during sundown and nighttime, which is when the opposing waterbenders would be even stronger.”
“Ah, yes, thank you for pointing that out General Iroh. That leads to another segment of my plan. During my time as a ground soldier in the Earth Kingdom, I came across a library, which held information on the location of the Moon spirit, which is in a holy place within the Northern Water Tribe. Should we invade, I would lead a small group of men, infiltrate the main city, and kill the Moon Spirit, prior to sunset, giving us an advantage.”
The reveal was shocking, and many men in the room flinched, Iroh included. “Zhao, you cannot possibly...”
“General Iroh, I am aware you are a superstitious man, however, the Moon is a noose on our power, and I firmly believe that eliminating the Moon spirit is the best way to lay a successful siege on the Water Tribes. The spirits be dammed .”
“Zhao, killing the Moon Spirit will upset the natural order!” Iroh roared, leaping to his feet.
“Enough!” Lu Ten interrupted, and both soldiers quieted.
Lu Ten looked at the assembled royals and soldiers, including Zuko, and Ozai . “Zhao, I presume you have intelligence that the Avatar is indeed going to the Water Tribe? If he were to go anywhere else, this would be a moot conversation.”
Zhao looked to Zuko, who swallowed, but spoke up. “The Avatar is unrealized, and very young. He has yet to master any element other than air, and since there are no waterbenders left in the Southern Tribe, he has to go north. The latest hawk puts him currently going to the Southern Air Temple, but we do believe the Northern Tribe is his final destination.”
“How do we know there aren’t any waterbenders in the South Pole?” A commander spoke up, whose name Zuko didn’t remember.
“According to the members of the Southern Tribe, with whom I spent a fair amount of time, need I remind you, the last waterbender in the Southern Tribe was killed during a raid over five years ago.” Zuko based the cover story on the scenario that had occurred when his husband’s former wife had been killed.
“That matches with records of a raid from the Southern Raiders, after the escape from the waterbender prisons.” Another unnamed officer backed up Zuko’s story.
Lu Ten nodded, satisfied with the information. “Very well. The tribe will most likely take them in the moment the Avatar is recognized, therefore we can certainly account for a violation of the peace treaty. I approve of the mobilization of ships, a week from today to account for travel time, however, I do agree with General Iroh. We will attack during the daylight exclusively, but no harm will be directed towards the Moon Spirit.”
Zhao scowled, clearly unhappy. Lu Ten sat back, and nodded. “Refine the manuevers, run war game drills, and familiarize yourselves with the records of waterbender offensive tactics. Report back in two days with an update, but in the meantime, consider the plan approved. Dismissed.”
Everyone clambered to their feet, and bowed, and slowly the men filed out of the chamber. Zuko himself made to leave, but then Lu Ten called after him. “Ambassador Zuko, a word please?”
Ozai passed Zuko, side-eying him, but left the two cousins alone. Lu Ten rose from the throne, and stepped down to the main floor, indicating for Zuko to follow him.
The two walked through the palace, into the main gardens, and the Firelord sat at the edge of the pond, and gestured for Zuko to sit too.
Plopping gently on the grass next to his cousin, Zuko was slightly pleased to see a small family of turtleducks swimming across the water, and he smiled to himself. Lu Ten glanced at his cousin just in time to catch the smile, and felt slightly guilty for being about to ruin the moment.
“I think you should go back to the South Pole.” Lu Ten said, and Zuko blinked.
“Why? We’re expecting the invasion in three weeks. By the time I get there, it will be time for me to come back.”
“I think you should say goodbye to your husband and step-children. Permanently.”
Zuko swallowed. “So the invasion will mean the end of the peace treaty?”
“Yes,” Lu Ten sighed. “The invasion will be the end of peace between us and the Water Tribes. I have already signed the executive order to have your marriage annulled, and I think you should deliver notice to the South Pole.”
“What good will that do? They’ll see me as hostile the minute I give them that notice.” Zuko lamented, dread filling him.
Lu Ten nodded, and looked away. “It’s your choice. But I don’t want you joining the invasion to the North Pole.”
Zuko blinked once more in surprise. “Why?”
“Zuko, you have very little military experience, and those ships are going to be filled to the brim with soldiers that are not only more combat ready, but those who have no reason to respect you. As far as they’re concerned, you gave up your title for the people that they’re going to fight.”
Zuko scoffed. “I did as I was asked.”
“We both know that’s not true.” Lu Ten sniped, and the younger man scowled.
“ So what do you want me to do?” He asked.
“Nothing. As far as I can see, you’ve fulfilled your service, and can retire.” Lu Ten didn’t make eye contact with his cousin.
“Ret. ..Retire ?” Zuko spluttered. “You want me to do nothing? Lu Ten, I can...”
“I won’t hear it.” Lu Ten cut Zuko off. “Zuko, I am doing this for your own good. Take a break, relax, let me handle things from here.”
Zuko frowned. “Who’s behind this, my father?”
Lu Ten hissed. “I resent the accusation that I cannot make my own mind up, Zuko.”
“And I resent the implication that I am useless to you. Only a few weeks ago, you wanted me on your council, what changed?”
“The Avatar came back. Now more than ever I need people who can help me unite our territory, and justify this, and you won’t do that.”
All of the fight slipped out of Zuko. “You think my loyalties are divided?” Lu Ten wasn’t wrong of course, but Zuko wouldn’t tell him that.
“No. I think you’re confused. All I’m asking is that you spend some time deciding what you want out of your life, and relax for once. Zuko, you have control of your own destiny again, I’m trying to give you the freedom to have that.”
“By sending me away.” Zuko finished, and Lu Ten sighed once more.
Zuko stood. ‘I understand. Please, excuse me.” With that, Zuko tried to leave, but Lu Ten stopped him.
“Thank you, Firelord Lu Ten. But you’ve given me much to think about. I need some time to consider your proposal.” Zuko cut his cousin off, and marched away, leaving the Firelord alone.
Reaching his rooms, Zuko was slightly relieved not to see his father or sister waiting for him, and flopped down on the bed, emotions rushing through him. The rooms were fairly sparse, they had been for a while now, but it was if the emptiness of the environment that he was now in reminded him of how alone he felt now. Cursing the spirits in his mind, Zuko felt angry about the entire situation. For the last three years, he had done his best to rise and meet the expectations put on hi, and had even found a family in the process through Hakoda, Sokka, and Katara. He’d had them for three months. And now he was losing them, and the family he’d been born into in the first place. Crying out in frustration, Zuko buried his face in the red sheet covering the bed.
“A gold piece for your thoughts?”
Looking up, Zuko saw his uncle standing in the door to the room. He sat up, but shook his head, refusing to speak.
“I understand my son has tried to encourage you to take a vacation, my nephew.” Iroh prodded, sitting next to the teenager.
“Yeah.” Zuko said lamely, not sure what else to say.
“And I take it that you have no wish to go?” His uncle asked.
“I...argh, I don’t know!” Zuko cried, flopping back down on the mattress. “I don’t know what to do Uncle.”
“Well, that is not something I can help you with, Zuko. You must find your own path, your own destiny. What is it you want out of your life?”
“Peace.” Zuko mumbled, not really giving serious thought to the question.
“Which is why you tried to make the treaty work?” His uncle inferred.
“You know my son means well, Zuko.” Iroh says gently.
“I don’t know what he means, anymore. We had a fight on the ship prior to the coronation, and we never talked about it. That definitely influenced our conversation just now.” Zuko threaded his fingers through his shoulder-length hair, which was coming out of the abused topknot trapped under his head.
Sitting up, Zuko released his hair from the topknot, allowing the black locks to fall stiffly downwards.
“What was the fight about?” Iroh asked, sensing that he could be prying.
“My father, and my position within the Fire Nation.” Zuko shook his head, allowing the hair to separate and loosen.
“I see. So my son is concerned about my brother’s influence after all.” Iroh mused, and Zuko blinked.
“You think my father will attempt a hostile takeover of the throne using military influence?”
Iroh’s head snapped to Zuko, realizing how severe the topic had been between his son and nephew. “Lu Ten thinks that is a possibility?”
Zuko nodded. Iroh made a low sound of displeasure. “I knew my brother was unhappy with the regime, but I would not have considered him to go that far, surely.”
“I think it could be more like the regime you encountered in Ba Sing Se. A puppet king manipulated by a powerful shadow organization.”
Iroh was silent as he considered Zuko’s perspective. But before either of them could say anything more, both men could hear a loud commotion coming from the main section of the palace. Together they rushed to see what it was, and they found Lu Ten, Ozai , and Azula already there, presented by the Head Fire Sage.
“We have received a hawk from the sages on Crescent Moon Island, your majesty. The Avatar Temple, it is glowing, sire. The Avatar has returned.”
Zuko and Iroh glanced at each other, and Ozai spun towards the Firelord . “The Avatar will continue to pose a threat as long as he explores the globe unassisted. We should establish agents to track down the Avatar and capture him, prior to him reaching the Northern Water Tribe, or at the very least after, if he is not arrested during the siege.”
Lu Ten considered Ozai’s words. “What would you suggest?”
“A small, elite team, skilled and resourceful, sent to pursue the Avatar, and capture him. I would suggest my daughter, who is highly prepared for such a task.”
Azula nodded, and smiled. “I would be honored to undertake such a task, Firelord Lu Ten.” She bowed, just long enough to conceal the smirk gracing her face.
“In that case, you can join me.” Zuko interrupted, surprising everyone in the room, himself included. “I have decided to take some time to visit the Earth Kingdom, and planned to visit Mai’s family in the former city of Omashu . I would assume you would recruit her, given your history?”
Azula tilted her head, and squinted her eyes, but nodded, and Lu Ten also appeared to agree. That is when Iroh also stepped forward.
“If you do not mind the company, Prince Zuko, might I also accompany you to the Earth Kingdom. I find that I am not one for the cold anymore, and I should like to see the colonies once more.”
Zuko blinked, but nodded, and Iroh smiled. Ozai remained silent, glancing between his children and his brother, trying to determine the motives driving the sudden decision. Lu Ten took a deep breath, and then broke the silence.
“Very well. Princess Azula, I authorize you to pursue the Avatar with intent to capture, however you are not permitted to do so prior to the siege of the North Pole. We cannot justify the attack if the Avatar is never there, but you can track him and report back. Ambassador Zuko, and General Iroh, I wish you well in the Earth Kingdom.”
Zuko nodded, and Iroh bowed, and Azula shot Zuko a look as Lu Ten turned to leave. Ozai nodded towards his daughter before leaving, and Iroh also made his departure, muttering about some of the tea’s he had enjoyed while in the Earth Kingdom.
“Now what are you up to, brother dear?” Azula asked, suspicious.
Trying to act innocent, Zuko shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do not lie to me Zuko, you’re rather bad at it.” Azula remarked, dropping false pretenses .
Meeting her eyes, Zuko steeled himself. “I’m not, in fact, I’m doing something nice for you, considering I’m giving you a ride.”
“Of course, but I do not understand what you could possibly want in the Earth Kingdom. It’s positively filthy.” Azula commented.
“I think I’m just looking for a change in scenery. Between ice and ocean, I haven’t seen much land recently.” Zuko adopted a wistful tone, trying to sell his actions to his sister.
“Fine. If you’ll excuse me, I have a circus to visit.”
Zuko smirked, and called out to his sister as she walked away. “Ask Ty Lee if we should pad the ship for her acrobatics practice.”
Finally by himself, Zuko walked back to his rooms, a plan half-formed in his head. Rummaging around a chest in his rooms, he found what he was looking for, and the plan expanded a little more. Holding the play mask up, Zuko’s eyes drifted to the dual swords placed on his dresser, and he smiled to himself. It would look like he was accompanying his step-children after all.
It's a Zuko-exclusive chapter today, but don't worry, we'll get back to the Gaang next time. In the meantime, I wanted to thank everyone who commented or left kudos on this fic, it means so much to me, you will not believe it! I do intend to loosely use narratives from across all three books in this fic, so providing that college doesn't completely bury me in work, this fic should hit ~100k words by Thanksgiving! Thanks again y'all, bye bye!
Chapter 16: Truths Underneath
So, quick warning, there are subtle implications of homophobia in this chapter. There is absolutely nothing explicit, but it is there. This is also the only time homophobia will be displayed in this fic, but I will do my best to tag appropriately.
Please keep commenting and leaving kudos though, they really do make a difference to me! I can't believe this fic is as long as it is, and with no end in sight!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The ride on Appa’s back towards the Earth Kingdom was uncomfortably quiet except for Momo’s chittering as he explored his new surroundings. Katara and Sokka did not know what to say as Aang secluded himself on the other side of the bison’s saddle. They were all thinking about what had just occurred at the Air Temple, and their first witness of Aang’s Avatar powers.
Chasing the lemur to the site of the genocide had been a humbling experience for Sokka, if only to see the true result of what this war had done to the world. Sokka had never seen so many bones in one place, but he couldn’t help but think of what it must’ve looked like to Aang, who, if given time, might’ve been able to identify each person those bones would’ve belonged to.
Sokka watched the young airbender sink to his knees in front of one particular body, whispering the name of his teacher, and saw Aang’s hands clench into tight fists.
“Oh no...c’mon Aang, it’ll be okay. Let’s get out of here.” Sokka placed his hand on the Avatar’s shoulder, and then flinched upon seeing the full weight of Aang’s glare, complete with glowing eyes. Slowly, the tribesman backed away, but not fast enough in time to get fully knocked back by a sharp gust of wind. Slamming into the wall, Sokka curled up into a ball, shielding himself from debris as the wind picked up, sending rocks and bones flying around. Cracks formed in the roof and walls, and soon the noise was deafening.
Katara was still in the room of statues when the eyes all started glowing, and she stepped away in shock, before realizing something. She ran to try and find Aang and her brother, and soon the noise of the wind alerted her to their location. Seeing Sokka try to shield himself from harm, she saw Aang a few steps away, encased in a swirling ball of wind. The room around them was crumbling, and Katara could feel the air pushing her out of the room. She struggled to reach Sokka, and had to yell just to get him to hear her.
“He found out that Firebenders killed Gyatso!” Sokka shouted back, and Katara’s expression shuttered.
“Oh no! His grief must’ve triggered the Avatar Spirit! I’m going to try and calm him down.”
“Do it! Be careful, but do it, before he blows us off the mountain!”
“Aang! Aang, I know you’re upset! I know how hard it is to lose someone you care about, especially to the Fire Nation. I went through the same thing when I lost my mom. And when the Fire Nation took Zuko too! Monk Gyatso may be gone, but you’re not alone! You still have a family! Sokka and I, we can be your family now! And we won’t let anything happen to you!”
The wind softened, and Katara was able to get closer and closer to the airbender. She could see the tattoo on his head stop glowing, and Sokka approached the Avatar with his sister, until they could pull him into an embrace.
“We’ll keep you safe, I promise.” Sokka whispered, trying to think of what Zuko would do in this situation.
“C’mon, we should get out of here.” Sokka told his sister, and then his attention was dragged back down to Aang, who appeared as if he were waking up, despite not having been unconscious.
“You guys were right. Firebenders did find this temple. And if they found this one, they probably found the others too. I really am the last airbender. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Katara brushes her hand over Aang’s forehead. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Let’s go. It’s not safe here.” Sokka presses, noticing the structural damage that has been done to the ancient masonry. Together, the water tribe siblings pull Aang to his feet, and guide him back to Appa. Just as they climb into the saddle, Aang takes one last look at the temple, and then a small skitter emerges, and the flying lemur they had been chasing scurries up Aang’s clothes, perching on his shoulder, before jumping onto Sokka’s head.
“What the...” Sokka startles, going to brush the animal away, when it pulls a clump of berries out of it’s pouch, and drops it on the older boy’s head.
Katara laughs and says “Looks like you made a new friend Sokka.”
Sokka chuckles, and shoves the berries in his mouth, savoring the sweet flavor. The animal curled around Aang’s neck, and Aang smiled, scratching the lemur’s head.
“Hey little guy. I guess between you, me, and Appa, we’re all that’s left of this place. That means we should stick together. For that, you’ll need a name...hey guys, meet the newest member of our family!”
“What did you call him?” Katara asked, securing the bedding rolls to the saddle.
End of Flashback
“Um, Aang, can I ask you a question?” Sokka broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Sure.” Aang tried to sound normal, and perhaps forced his tone to be a tad too high.
“That thing you did, back in the air temple. Your eyes were glowing, just like the ice that you had been in. What is that?”
“I don’t really know.” Aang admitted. “I don’t know a lot about being the Avatar, actually. The monks never really got time to explain it to me. The room of statues in the Air Temple didn’t really help either.”
“The statues started glowing around the same time you two must’ve found...” Katara chimed in, but trailed off, trying to avoid voicing the horrors of what they had seen.
“Really?” Aang looked interested. “Huh. I guess there’s more than just a connection to the statues than just them being physical tributes of my past lives.”
“My grandmother told me once that the Avatar is able to connect with their past lives, but I don’t know, I hadn’t really understood that at the time.”
“I guess. I wish there was someone who could guide me through this whole Avatar thing. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I really could’ve today. I’m sorry.” Aang apologized, making eye contact with Sokka.
Soka smiled, and thought for a moment, remembering when Zuko had been teaching him about swords. “Zuko once told me that being aware of your environment is important to being a good fighter. But I think that also having a good awareness of yourself is equally important, and for you, that’s a lot of history to be aware of. It’s going to be confusing, and it’ll take some time for you to get there. Don’t worry about it.”
“That’s a good point,” Katara perked up. “There’s a lot of history there! There must be someone who knows the history of the Avatar! Maybe we could find them!”
Aang shrugged. “Maybe. There might be information in the Northern Water Tribe!”
“Or here!” Sokka called out, and Aang and Katara realized that he was looking at the map Aang had. His finger was located right next to one of the areas on the map that Aang had wanted to go to.”
“What’s there?” Katara asked, and Sokka revealed the name of the location.
“Kyoshi Island. And if I’m remembering anything Gran Gran taught me...”
“Avatar Kyoshi was the avatar before Roku!” Aang exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “If the island is named after her, maybe they know some history about the Avatar!”
Katara and Sokka exchanged smiles. “Looks like we’re going to Kyoshi Island.”
Azula was right about one thing, the Earth Kingdom was very dirty. Disembarking at the harbor, Zuko could see that the entire place was practically glazed in layers of soot and dust. Iroh could see his nephew’s nose wrinkle in disgust.
“Most of it comes from the coal exhausts of the engines. This harbor is frequently used by Fire Navy ships, and they can create a bit of a mess.” Iroh half-heartedly explained, feeling slightly guilty for the state of the environment.
“If it’s doing this to the land, I’d hate to know what we’re doing to the water.” Zuko replied, glancing at the shallow water of the docks, seeing clumps of algae cling to the sides of the ships in the harbor.
Azula inspected her nails. “Who cares? If the colony peasants want to live in filth, why shouldn’t we give it to them?” Looks of disgust were garnered from some of the dockhands, all of which wore Earth Kingdom colors.
Zuko had no response, but Iroh did. “No one wants to live in filth, Princess. The Earth Kingdom has actually been very innovative at waste disposal, and transportation...”
Azula cut him off. “Dearest Uncle, I do not care.” She snapped, and Iroh glared at her behind her back. Ty Lee came cartwheeling down the gangway, joining the group.
“Wow, I can’t believe we’re in the Earth Kingdom! I’ve never left the Fire Nation before!”
“Ty Lee, don’t be silly. We haven’t left the Fire Nation, just simply the mainland.” Azula corrected, and Ty Lee’s smile faltered for a millisecond.
“Right, of course.”
“I doubt they think the same way.” Zuko commented, and Azula rolled her eyes.
“I don’t care what they think. If they didn’t want to be conquered, Ba Sing Se shouldn’t have surrendered. Not that it would’ve mattered, of course. We would’ve won the war anyways.” Azula smirked, and looked around. “Uncle, I thought you had arranged transportation to the city of Omashu?”
Iroh nodded, and said “Yes, a military tank is escorting us there. It should be here any moment. We were in the wind’s favor arriving.”
Azula made a noise of disgust. “That shouldn’t matter. They should have anticipated fluctuations in arrival times, and been here when we got here. Poor preparedness should not be tolerated in our military.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re impatient.” Zuko sniped, just as the tank pulled up to the docks, and three uniformed officers got out, accidentally making it so that Zuko would get the last word in.
A green iguana parrot sat on a post nearby shrieked a mimic of Zuko’s word, shouting “Impatient!”, and the noise echoed around the dock, and Azula practically did her best to obliterate the bird with her gaze.
Ty Lee sniggered behind her hand, and Azula scowled at her friend. The soldiers approached, and bowed to Azula, and then Iroh, recognizing chain of command. “Princess Azula, General Iroh, welcome to the Colonies.” The highest ranking of the three, a captain spoke, and both acknowledged his greeting.
“Shall we?” Azula prodded, and the captain nodded, and soon enough they were rocketing through countryside towards Omashu. The internal mechanics of the tank made the inside nearly unbearably hot, and Zuko could feel himself melting under his black armor. Even Ty Lee looked unusually flushed, despite her usual-perfect appearance, as she sat next to Zuko.
“So, Zuko...you must be excited to see Mai now that you’re not married anymore!” She hinted, driving her shoulder softly into his.
“I would have been happy to see her anyways, married or not.” Zuko spoke freely, and Ty Lee’s face lit up. Zuko had never been that open with her, especially when they were younger.
“Aww, that’s so cute!” She squealed, and Zuko winced at the high-pitched noise.
Recognizing his discomfort, she lowered her voice slightly. “So, d’you think you two might start dating?”
Zuko blinked at her. “What?” He asked dumbly.
Ty Lee smirked at him. “Well, neither of you are in a committed relationship anymore, so you’d be free to get together! You’ve both liked each other for years, and without that pesky treaty, you could date anyone now!”
Zuko was speechless, having never even considered dating now that his marriage was practically over. “I. ..don’t think so.”
Ty Lee looked crestfallen. “Why not?”
“I was married, Ty Lee. I gave up my title for it. Mai deserves something better than that.” Zuko lied boldly, truthfully not being able to picture himself being anywhere near as happy with Mai as he had been in the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Oh Zuko, that’s not true!” Ty Lee tried to convince him.
Azula cut in. “You don’t think Mai deserves better?” Ty Lee shot her a look.
“That’s not what I meant! I meant that there’s something really admirable in giving up everything for your country, and anyone would be lucky to be with someone who’s that loyal, Mai included.”
“I see.” Azula continues. “Well, I personally think that Mai deserves to be with someone that hasn’t filthied themselves with a Water Tribe man.” The last word of her comment was emphasized, and it was like everyone in the room froze. Clearly, the details of Zuko’s marriage were still obscured from common knowledge.
“...oh.” Ty Lee looked between Zuko, who had locked himself in a death glare competition with his sister.
Iroh made to speak, but Zuko cut him off. “I’m not entirely sure I understood your point there Azula? Did you have a problem with me being married to someone of the Water Tribe royal family, or being married to a man?” Pure venom dripped from Zuko’s words, and anyone not involved in the conversation quickly looked away, trying to avoid attention from the arguing siblings.”
“Honestly, Zuzu , I find issues with both. I mean, if I were to marry someone, I would be disgusted to find out that they had been with someone of their own gender prior to me. And as for the Water Tribe royal family, please. What do they rule over? Penguins, polar bears, and ice? The title hardly means much.”
“Well, I would think that anyone who would be forced to marry you would be disgusted with your entire personality in general.” Zuko shot back.
Azula rolled her eyes. “Any man would be lucky to have me.”
“Any man would be lucky to survive you.” Zuko replied.
Azula’s eyes narrowed. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I don’t know if I would be able to live with being married to a monster.” Zuko elaborated, and Azula shot to her feet.
“How dare you speak to me that way?” Her voice was furious.
“Guys, stop!” Ty Lee pleaded, trying to push herself between the two.
“What, how dare I tell you the truth?” Zuko asked, egging her on.
Azula’s face warped. “Fine, you want truth? Here’s some! You were just forced to marry so that we could be rid of you! Desecrating your reputation was just a benefit!”
“Princess Azula, that is enough!” Iroh interrupted, his face guarded, but his body language displayed a stance of aggression .
Zuko smirked. “You think I care about that? I was happy to leave, at least it meant doing something other than getting people to do stuff for you because they’re scared of you.”
Iroh turned to Zuko. “I said, that is enough, Prince Zuko. Or have you both forgotten yourselves?”
The siblings glanced around, looking at the uncomfortable faces of the soldiers around them. “No matter.” Azula composed herself. “Once we go our separate ways, it’s not like you’ll have time to date Mai anyways. She’ll be too busy hunting the Avatar for you.”
“Whatever.” Zuko rolled his eyes, and Azula stormed off, probably to go shout some orders at unsuspecting soldiers, leaving Zuko alone with Iroh and Ty Lee.
Zuko sank back down in his seat, exhaling harshly. Ty Lee was quiet for a moment, before speaking. “I wouldn’t have had a problem with it.”
Turning to her, Zuko gave her a confused look. “With what?”
“If I had a partner who had been with someone of their own gender. I wouldn’t have had a problem. In fact, I’d be interested in trying it myself.” She continued, and Zuko’s face took on a look of surprise.
“It’s...different.” Zuko tried to explain without being able to fall back on any experience, thinking back to the dynamic of his and Hakoda’s platonic relationship, and how Zuko had fit within the small family.
Ty Lee smirked, looking Zuko up and down. “I’m sure it is.” Zuko blushed, and shook his head, trying to push her away from what she was thinking.
“No, not like...that. Men have...different expectations, I think.”
“How so?” Ty Lee asked, confused.
Zuko paused, trying to formulate his words. “I think, just dating girls is different to dating guys. Different things mattered more.”
“Huh.” Ty Lee thought a little. “To me, I don’t really think the gender of the person is that important. It would just depend on the kind of person they were.”
“Agreed, but I think gender would play a factor in romantic inclination, for me at least. I don’t think a person’s gender is a dealbreaker, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t matter to me a little.” Zuko tried to explain.
“So, if you’re not interested in dating Mai, is there a boy more appealing to you?” Ty Lee asked.
“No. There’s no one I’m interested in dating. I’m not really interested in dating at all right now. I am recently divorced after all.” Zuko tried to joke, and Ty Lee smiled.
“Okay. Well, I’m just saying, no matter who you were, or are with, it wouldn’t matter to me.” She reaffirmed.
Smiling at her, Zuko nodded. “Thank you.”
“It would not matter to me either, for the record.” Iroh chimed in, and both teenagers glanced at him, forgetting that he had been there for a moment.
“Thank you Uncle .” Zuko’s chest felt tight, almost as if he were about to break down crying. A soft alarm echoed around the tank, alerting every that they were nearly there. Looking out of the main viewport, they could see the city of Omashu in the distance, piled like spice into a neat cone at the market on top of a mountain. The Fire Nation emblem shone brightly over the front gates, and for a moment, Zuko remembered his plan, glancing at his uncle, hoping for the same forgiveness for his actions as his sexuality.
So the conversation between Zuko and Ty Lee is almost word for word a conversation I myself have had with someone regarding sexuality. My personal headcanon is that Zuko is bisexual, and Ty Lee is pansexual, and I did my best to explain that without using those terms...yet. And before anyone tries to @ me for this, I will not tolerate any bi or pan-phobia in the comments, trans and ace-phobia too while I'm at it.
While also on the topic of relationships, there are a few things y'all should probably expect from here on out, so I'm just gonna give you a rundown on ages real quick.
Iroh - 50 years old
Ozai - 38 years old
Hakoda - 34 years old
Lu Ten - 22 years old
Zuko - 17 years old
Yue - 16 years old
Sokka - 16 years old
Mai - 15 years old
Suki - 15 years old
Katara - 14 years old
Azula - 14 years old
Ty Lee - 14 years old
Toph - 13 years old
Aang - 12 years old (+100 doesn't mean anything if you don't AGE!)
With that cleared up, fifteen is my cutoff. Anyone younger will not be engaging in a relationship, regardless of canon. I feel creepy writing it, so it's not happening. Nor is that thing where people just ogle Ty Lee, because...yeah. You should get why. And any relationship that has an age gap bigger than 10 years is going to be platonic, so please don't take any implication that there was anything between Zuko and Hakoda.
Okay, this note has been long enough. Hope you enjoyed the fic, there will probably be a new update by October 7th, but the update process might slow down a little as my courseload picks up.
Chapter 17: Love's a Snare
Sokka had never felt so embarrassed in his life. It was one thing to get beat up and captured, and it was another thing to have been done so by a girl, but for the same girl to kick his butt AGAIN without any help...that crossed a line. The thing was, Sokka knew his embarrassment was misplaced. It had been his own fault to challenge her, and he should never have underestimated her, especially when every single woman Sokka had ever met was just as strong as he was.
He watched Katara organizing supplies so that they could leave Kyoshi Island soon, responsibly taking care of both Aang and himself, as if they’d never left home. He remembered his grandmother who took over the village while his dad was gone, and supported everyone, while taking care of both him and his sister. He’d watched the women who had lost their husbands to captivity raise their children alone, and never falter, so intrinsically, Sokka would never consider women the weaker sex. How could he? But there was something about Suki that just made him want to feel bigger, and stronger, and cooler...and oh no. Watching Suki practice with her fans now, Sokka realized that he was noticing her grace, and poise, and focus just as much as her looks, and he could feel his neck and cheeks flush as he looked on. He had a crush on her. And all he’d done was make her think he was a sexist idiot. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed his pride and approached her, taking accidental notes on the fact that she stuck her tongue out a little as she carefully phased through her footwork.
Suki spotted him coming almost immediately, almost as if she had developed a sense for him now. She straightened up, and scowled, clearly waiting to see what he wanted now. Sokka stopped a couple feet from her, clearly leaving some distance between them in case she decided to attack him again.
“Um…hi.” Sokka started , and she raised an eyebrow.
“What do you want? To teach me another lesson?” She asked sarcastically and Sokka winced.
“ Uh…no. It was pretty clear that there was nothing I needed to teach you.” He began, not really sure where to go next. “I was pretty rude …I guess, and I shouldn’t have implied that you being a girl didn’t make you a warrior. ”
“Oh really? And what prompted this change of heart?” She asked, sheathing her fans and placing her hands on her hips.
“Would it surprise you that I really have no idea how to talk to girls?” Sokka asked, not really answering her question. Suki blinked, before shaking her head.
“Not really, no . But why does that have to do with anything?”
Sokka raised his hands in defense. “I have a point. Where I’m from, the only girl remotely close to my age is my sister. And we fight a lot, and when I’m mad at her, I talk to her almost exactly the same way I talk to you. Not that I see you like my sister or anything, I don’t even really know you, but what I’m saying I guess is that…”
“Sokka, you’re rambling.” She cut him off, taking a step towards him.
“Right.” Sokka said sheepishly, rubbing his neck. “Being mean and a jerk was really the only way I knew how to talk to you, and I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that. I think you’re an incredible fighter, and I would like to ask for your forgiveness. I’m sorry. ”
Suki blinked, pleasantly surprised. “I accept your apology. And for the record? Talking to girls is easy .”
Sokka laughed, and she smiled, noticing how soft his happiness was. “I guess, but I think you can only say that because you grew up around a lot of them , given how many are chasing Aang right now.”
Suki chuckled. “Yeah. Most of the men in our village often travel to find their fortunes elsewhere , they’re not much for staying at home. Or at least, that was the case with my father.”
Sokka grimaced. “Yeah, I can relate to that. My dad left too, for a little while. Pretty much left me, my sister, and my grandmother to run the whole tribe.”
“Your grandmother?” Suki asked, curious. “No mom?”
Sokka’s face grew blank, and she could tell that was a sensitive subject. “My mom died when we were young, in a Fire Nation raid. I don’t really remember her. Nowadays we have a step-father.”
Suki’s mouth dropped open. “I’m sorry, what?”
Sokka tilted his head, confused. “What?”
“Step-father? Not step-mother?” Suki clarified, wondering if he had spoken wrong.
Realizing her confusion, Sokka shook his head. “No, step-father. There’s my dad, Hakoda, and our step-dad, Zuko. Except we don’t really see him as a step-dad, but more of a brother figure.”
Speechless, Suki stared at him, and there was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Feeling guilty, Sokka hung his head. “I guess that kind of thing isn’t really accepted here, is it?”
Realizing the social faux-pas, Suki emphatically shook her head. “No, it is. It’s very common actually, here. Avatar Kyoshi herself was interested in members of the same sex . I’ve just never heard of it outside of the Earth Kingdom.”
It was Sokka’s turn to look surprised. “Oh, I didn’t know that. Speaking of Avatar Kyoshi, can you tell me anything about her, or the Avatar in general. I know Aang hasn’t really focused on it, but we came here to learn more about the Avatar spirit, and we don’t really know where to start.”
Suki frowned, and thought for a moment. “The village elders might have some records , Avatar Kyoshi wasn’t really the type to write things down though. ”
Slumping, Sokka deflated. That was not the answer he had been looking for. “Okay, uh…thank you. I’ll go ask. And for…talking to me.” He turned to leave, and she resumed her routine stance. He stopped for a moment, glancing at her, before frowning.
“Wait.” He said, and she looked over.
“What?” She asked.
“Your fans, they’re made of metal…but sourced from airbending , right?” He asked, and she nodded.
“The Kyoshi warrior fighting style is derived from fighting forms from all four nations. Avatar Kyoshi blended techniques together to provide us with a sense of balance, and prepared defense from multiple kinds of attacks.” Suki whirled the fans through the air, slicing and cutting, sliding through the space, as if the instruments were merely extensions of her hands.
“Wow.” Sokka looked fascinated. “Can. ..can you show me some moves?”
Suki hesitated. “We don’t normally teach outsiders, let alone boys.”
Sokka bowed. “Please make an exception. I made a promise to protect the Avatar, and I really do think you could help me fulfill that. I won’t let you down.”
Suki considered her options, and then smiled to herself. “Alright. But you have to follow all of our traditions and customs.”
Sokka nodded enthusiastically, and her gaze sharpened. “And I mean ALL of them.”
Moments later, the tribesman was fully kitted out in traditional Kyoshi warrior dress, complete with makeup and fans. Underneath the facepaint , Sokka’s cheeks were flushed, and he felt a little embarrassed to be wearing a dress.
“Do I really have to wear this? It feels a little...girly.”
Suki regarded him coolly. “It’s a warrior’s uniform, you should be proud. The silk threads symbolize the brave blood that flows through our veins, and the gold insignia represents the honor of the warrior’s heart.”
Sokka regarded the outfit, and the pulled out the knife Zuko had given him, recognizing the same gold insignia on the hilt. Suki’e eyes widened, and she had to restrain herself from reaching out to see the knife.
“Where did you get that?” She asked breathlessly.
Sokka blinked, and then looked up at her. “Zuko...my stepfather gave it to me.”
“He was from the Earth Kingdom?” She asked, curious.
Sokka paused, shaking his head. “No. ..he’s from the Fire Nation.”
Suki flinched and stepped backwards, fury crossing her face. “Did he get that knife from someone he killed?”
Sokka grew defensive. “No!”
“How do you know?” She yelled.
“Because it was given to him by his uncle. His uncle was given it by a general in Ba Sing Se, when the Earth Kingdom surrendered.” Sokka replied, and Suki scoffed.
“They didn’t surrender Sokka. The Fire Nation laid total siege to Ba Sing Se, cutting anything off from coming in or out, taking refugees prisoner, and letting the people inside the wall starve. They didn’t surrender, they were coerced into submission. There’s a difference.”
Sokka deflated. “Why are you mad at me?”
Suki took a deep breath. “Your stepfather is Fire Nation!”
“Well it’s not like he or my dad had anything to say about it when they got married, and I certainly didn’t!”
Suki frowned. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“My dad married Zuko in order to maintain a peace treaty with the Fire Nation, about four months ago. An agreement between the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation. And he’s a good person. He helped Aang escape from the Fire Nation, he taught me to fight, and he’s only a few months older than me.”
“So what?” Suki argued. “He’s still Fire Nation! He was probably involved in the war anyways! He was still complicit in the pillaging of the Earth Kingdom!”
Angry, Sokka clenched his fists. “Oh, like an island of heavily-trained warriors who chose to stay out of it weren’t either?”
Suki stepped back like he’d slapped her, and the fight ran out of her shoulders. Sokka immediately felt guilty, and wanted desperately to rub his face in exhaustion, even though that would ruin his makeup.
“...you’re right.” She said quietly, causing Sokka to startle.
“I. ..don’t want to be. But even though he is Fire Nation, and believe me, I have more reasons than most to hate the Fire Nation, I don’t blame him for the war.”
Suki was quiet. “I guess it’s too easy to paint the entire Fire Nation as bad when all you see is the damage, but knowing someone personally does change the story.”
“Yeah.” Sokka stood still, looking back down at the knife, before sheathing it, and putting it away. “Okay, so, back to our lesson? Because as much as I want to learn from you...the sooner I get out of this dress, the happier I’ll be.”
Suki laughed, and turned to face him, and bowed. “Alright. Let’s start with the basics.”
In Omashu , Zuko stood politely as Mai’s parents humbly greeted Azula, while Mai stood to the side in disinterest holding her baby brother. Ty Lee made faces at the baby, causing him to laugh, but Mai made no effort to quiet the child. She never looked away from Zuko.
They were invited to dinner, and Iroh was asked to regale them with stories of his military service, which he did so happily. Zuko could hardly listen however, as he was constantly noticing Mai’s stare. It wasn’t until hours after dinner that she managed to get him alone.
“I understand your marriage is over.” Mai said bluntly, slightly startling Zuko, who hadn’t heard her approach.
“Apparently.” Zuko did his best not to react.
“You don’t sound too upset about it? Was she horrible?” Mai asked, still sounding bored.
Taking a deep breath, Zuko remembered the conversation from the tank, and turned to face her. “Not at all. He was...nice to me.”
Mai didn’t even flinch. “That sounds boring.”
Smiling, Zuko shook his head. “Would you have preferred to hear that we fought a lot?”
“Maybe. Maybe I just don’t like that you seem to have separated on good terms.” Mai pointed out.
“And why would that matter to you?” Zuko hinted.
Mai rolled her eyes. “The tone of that question tells me that Ty Lee had been blabbing her mouth again.”
Smirking, Zuko turned to her. “ So you do have a crush on me?”
Mai’s cheeks flushed ever so slightly. “I used to. Then you got engaged, and I got over it.”
“Why me?” Zuko asked, curious.
“Excuse me?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t exactly...nice to you when we were kids. Why did you like me?” Zuko asked, and Mai thought about it for a moment.
“Your mom used to force you to play with us. You hated it, and always did your best to spoil the fun. Usually you’d either get out of it one way or another, but whenever you did join us, you always made things more interesting. A chaotic factor in the monotony.”
“Why didn’t you just tell Azula she was boring?” Zuko responded, processing her words.
Mai shrugged. “Because I was bored, not suicidal.” Zuko snorted, nearly covering his mouth to stop himself from laughing.
A silence fell over the two for a moment. “So. ..you are going with Azula in the morning?”
The silence resumed, before it was Mai’s turn to ask a question. “What about you? Where are you going?”
“Ba Sing Se, probably. I want to see the walls for myself.” It was the first time Zuko had blatantly lied to Mai, and he felt a tiny bit guilty for doing so. Only a tiny bit, really.
She nodded, and then turned to leave. “I don’t know when or if we will see each other again Zuko.” She said, stopping.
Zuko tensed. “I know. Good luck Mai.” He whispered. She looked back at him briefly, and then turned fully towards him, advancing for a moment. And then, she kissed him.
Flinching back, Zuko pulled away, and Mai stepped back also, a look of genuine surprise on her face. “I. ..I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did that.” She apologized.
Recovering, Zuko smiled at her gently. “It’s okay. But Mai, I’m not...I...”
She smiled sadly. “I know. Goodbye Zuko.” With that, she left, almost as suddenly as she arrived.
Watching her leave, Zuko grimaced. “Goodbye Mai.”
Back in the Fire Nation, within the private rooms of Prince Ozai , a small group of men had gathered. Amongst them, Prince Ozai , and Commander Zhao discussed the attack plan that was about to be embarked upon.
“As long as both Water Tribes exist, they could be a threat to the Fire Nation!” Zhao argued, and the men around him nodded. Ozai, who sat at the head of the table stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“From what we know of the Southern Water Tribe, they are not very advanced. Their only defense is their environment, and our ships can easily cut through the ice. There is some risk, but it will be minimal compared to the damage they caused three years ago.”
“ So we are in agreement then? When the ships embark on to the Northern Tribe, a small cluster will break off and head south?” Zhao asked Ozai , who had yet to speak.
“Reports have come in saying that the Avatar travels with two other Southern Water Tribe children. Yes, we are in agreement to raid the Southern Tribe, but for leverage purposes...the Waterbender prisons are all empty now, correct?” Ozai asked, and the assembled men nodded in agreement.
“Do we take the entire tribe prisoner?” One man asked to clarify.
“The entire tribe. The village itself however...burn it to the ground with enough force to leave the smoke lingering for days. And remember, our dear Firelord is not to know a thing. Am I understood?"
Every occupant in the room nodded, and Ozai smiled. "Good. I will take care of the rest."
Chapter 18: A Force to be Reckoned With
As it would turn out, Kyoshi Island was not particularly helpful towards finding out anything about the Avatar, and eventually the three travelers moved on. Passing through village after village, they tried their best to keep a low profile, but the longer they were in the Earth Kingdom, the more paranoid Sokka got about them being watched.
He had tried to insist that they end up walking part of the way north, but it ended up being too difficult. Appa just didn’t fit on the footpaths. Flying over, the ride was fairly quiet. Momo occasionally glided along, and chattered to Appa, while Aang cloudgazed . Katara, however, had brought some reading material.
When she pulled Zuko’s scrolls out of one of the bags, Sokka’s eyes bulged out so much that Aang said he’d looked a little like Momo. Snatching up a scroll , Sokka whisper-yelled at his sister.
“Why do you have these?” She looked at him funny, and then spoke normally.
“I brought them along to study the bending forms. The day he left, Zuko taught me that bending different elements really just involved different ways of bending the same energy, and it’s possible that bending itself is not entirely subjective to one element. In this particular scroll, it shows the Firebender using waterbending forms to direct lightning.”
“Woah, really?” Aang floated up to have a look. Admiring the scrolls, Aang peeked at a few of the forms. “Hey, this one used an airbending trick! That’s so cool! Where did you get these?”
Katara and Sokka exchanged looks. “They’re Zuko’s. They were the only thing he left behind when he went back to the Fire Nation.” The air was somber. Both of them missed Zuko, and hoped he was okay.
“Y’know, the Kyoshi warriors apply the same concept to their fighting.” Sokka said after a moment. “Suki told me that they applied fighting styles from all over the world into their combat, because that’s what Kyoshi did. She used all four elements in unison as a means of defense.”
“That would make sense, given that she’s the Avatar.” Katara surmised. Before anyone could say anything else though, Momo let out a loud screeching noise. All three children turned to look at the lemur, who was pointing down on the ground.
Peering down over the edge of the saddle, all three gasped upon seeing the burned remains of a forest beneath them. Aang directed Appa to land, and Katara packed away the scrolls. Settling down on the ground, the group was disturbed by the eerie silence of the nature around them. Ash covered the ground, and the charred remains of trees stuck out of the ground like dried tendrils.
Aang clutched his staff, horrified. Nearby they spotted a Fire Nation soldier helmet, laying carelessly on the ground, partially buried in soot, and Aang felt so guilty.
“How could I have let this happen?”
“Aang, you didn’t let this happen. This wasn’t your fault.” Katara said gently.
“ Yes it was. It’s the Avatar’s job to protect nature, and I don’t know how to DO my job. Gystso said Avatar Roku was supposed to help me!”
Aang kicked the dirt, and walked away, and that’s when Katara noticed something on the ground. She picked it up, and smiled, before gesturing to Sokka. He looked at her oddly, but scrounged around, picking up a similar item.
“I know what might make you feel better.” She called out to Aang, who had his back to her.
Aang shook his head. “I don’t thin ...OW!” Katara chucked what she had picked up at his head, and he whirled around, noticing an acorn at his feet.
“Well, that cheered me up!” Sokka laughed. Aang scowled at him. Katara threw another acorn at her brother who yelped, startled, and whined at his sister.
“I don’t understand.” He held the acorn in his hand, and Katara waved her hands around.
“These acorns are everywhere, Aang, all over the ground. That means the forest will grow back. Every single one will grow into a great big tree, the birds and animals will return, and the ecosystem will be restored.”
Aang smiled a little, and looked at the acorn once more. Sokka grinned at his sister, and then tensed upon noticing that they were being watched.
“Hey, who are you?” He called out, drawing Aang and Katara’s attention to the stranger, who’s attention was locked onto Aang.
“When I saw the flying bison, I thought it was impossible, but those markings...Are you the Avatar, young man?”
Aang hesitated, but nodded. “Yes.”
The man gave him a look of relief. “My village desperately needs your help.”
He led the trio back to his village, which had been significantly damaged. “What happened here?” Katara asked. More villagers appeared, watching the newcomers.
“We were attacked by a spirit monster, for the last few days he has come at sunset, and with the winter solstice coming, the attack could get worse. The spirit has taken people, Avatar, please help us.”
“Taken?” Sokka asks, alarmed. “Wait, why would the solstice make the attacks worse?”
“The winter solstice marks the natural and Spirit Worlds get closer, blurring the walls between our world and theirs. The spirit, Hei Bai, we call him, is already causing devestation, what would he be able to do if there was nothing to stop him?”
“Why is he attacking you?” Aang asked.
The stranger shook his head. “I do not know.”
“ So what do you want me to do?” Aang continues, confused.
“Who better to resolve a crisis between our world and the Spirit World than the Avatar, the great bridge between man and spirits?”
“Uh...” Aang floundered, and Katara covered for him.
“We’ll help in any way we can.”
It took a few days towards Ba Sing Se for the guilt to truly set in, for Zuko. The further they got from Omashu , the more Zuko wanted to go back to the ship, and set sail for the South Pole. He had thought beforehand that the best way to separate himself from the Water Tribes was to just never go back, but now he had realized that he was just trying to avoid feeling guilty for not being able to protect them. He should have faced Hakoda when he had the chance.
Iroh could see his nephew’s inner conflict, and didn’t know how to help. Soldiers were supposed to escort them all the way to the city, which would make it difficult for Zuko to sneak away without alarm. Part of the way to Ba Sing Se, they came across a town that was well-developed for Earth Kingdom villages, and the soldiers posted locally informed them of a wealthy family that had a home just on the outskirts of town, that had invited the two royal members to dinner within their compound.
Iroh graciously accepted the invitation, and Zuko admired the metalwork that decorated the front gate as they waited to be greeted. The flying boar emblem was everywhere in the main lobby, and the finery rivalled that of the Fire Nation palace, if not exceeding it.
“Ah, General Iroh and Ambassador Zuko, welcome to my family home. I am Lao Beifong, please, come with me.”
“Master Beifong , you have a lovely home.” Zuko commented, trying to be polite.
“Why thank you. I cannot take all the credit of course, the building has been in my family since the age of Avatar Kuruk, and we’ve done our best to preserve our history within this place.”
“It is truly impressive.” Iroh followed up.
“Allow me to introduce my wife, Poppy, and our only daughter, Toph.” The two firebenders were led into a grand room, where two women were standing, ready to be presented to their guests. Or rather, one woman, and one young girl.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Iroh bowed to the family matriarch, and Zuko followed suit. “And you as well my dear.” Iroh directed the words to the daughter, who only nodded in acknowledgement.
Zuko’s eyes widened upon seeing her glassy look, and realized that Toph was in fact, blind.
“So, General Iroh, I understand that you are traveling to Ba Sing Se?” Lao asked, drawing their attention away from his family.
“Well, actually, my nephew is, and I’m just along for the ride.” Iroh responded. Lao redirected his attention to Zuko, upon hearing Iroh’s answer.
“And what interests you in the Earth Kingdom’s great city, Ambassador Zuko?”
Taking his eyes off of Toph for a moment, Zuko cleared his throat. “After spending some time in the Southern Water Tribe, I have gained a desire to see the world outside of the Fire Nation homeland. Since Ba Sing Se is such a significant part of the Earth Kingdom, I thought it would be a good place to start.”
“I understand. I used to travel frequently to Ba Sing Se before my daughter was born, it is a wonderful city. Or was, so I’ve heard recently.” Lao’s tone was sharp and critical, and both Iroh and Zuko resisted wincing.
“Forgive me if this is rude, but I am curious, are you three Earthbenders ?” Zuko asked, and Lao shook his head.
“No. My daughter is gifted, but she would not be able to use her talents, as she is blind.”
“Oh, I disagree,” Iroh said, thoughtlessly. “I have known many benders who are abled differently, that are extremely good benders. Why, the last time I was in Ba Sing Se, I met a bender who had lost his hands, but was able to use his bending through manipulation of his facial muscles.”
Toph’s face directly slightly in Iroh’s direction, a look of curiosity on her face, her mouth ticked up to the side.
Lao’s face darkened. “Regardless, she is too young, and fragile for me to even consider allowing...”
“Allowing?” Zuko interrupted, confused. “If she has been gifted with an ability to bend, surely that is something she must pursue. Forbidding someone to bend is a punishment for a bender, it’s why that particular technique is used in prisons.”
“I don’t like what you are implying, Ambassador Zuko.” Lao snarled.
Zuko reeled back, recognizing the man’s anger. “I meant no disrespect Master Beifong . But as a bender myself, my element is as much a part of me as my body, or my senses. But Toph should explore her abilities, and challenge herself to bend beyond her physical state.”
“Regardless, she is my daughter, I am responsible for her, and I have decided that bending is too risky for her. I understand your perspective, but do not question my choice to protect my family.”
“It was in the interests of family that I got this scar, Master Beifong . Consider other factors before making unilateral decisions.” Zuko snapped, shocking their host into silence.
“What scar?” Toph asked, speaking at last.
Lao was silent, but Zuko cut him off. “May I approach you, Miss Beifong ?” She nodded, looking unsure. Zuko stood, and moved closer to the girl, kneeling next to her.
She reached out her hand, to which Zuko raised his own, guiding it until her fingertips brushed the scarred cheek, and her palm flattened against his face until her entire hand was spread out flush, exploring the scarred region.
“Are you blind, like me, in this eye?” She asked.
“I used to be. My vision is still weak, and my hearing will never recover either.”
“And you bend fine?” She asked, her voice small.
“Not at first, but I adjusted, adapted, and learned. Now I can bend just as well as I used to, if not better.”
“Thank you.” She whispered, and Zuko squeezed her fingers before moving back to his place. Lao glared at Zuko for a moment, before schooling his features into a calm look.
The rest of the dinner resumed without much conversation, however Zuko noticed Toph frequently facing empty space to angle her ears towards the other people in the room. Occasionally her mother would chastise her, saying that it was rude not to face their guests, and she would freeze her face in lieu of a scowl, and Zuko would clench his fist under the table. It wasn’t his business.
As they left, Zuko thought a lot about the girl, which is why she scared the hell out him when she tugged on his sleeve just outside of the compound.
“Hey!” She said loudly, losing the gentle mask on her voice.
“What the...where did you come from?” Zuko whispered, trying not to draw alarm. Iroh continued walking carelessly with their soldier escort, leaving Zuko behind.
“You’re the first person to ever talk to my parents like that. Most of the earthbenders I’ve been around don’t think I can bend because of my sight.” She grinned dangerously, and Zuko took in her appearance. Gone was her high-class finery, her hair now unkempt and dirty. In fact ...all of her was dirty.
“Given the state of your clothes, I don’t think that’s true at all.” Zuko said dryly.
She snorted, very unladylike. “No. I’m a great bender. And although I wish my parents could see that, they see me nothing more than just a...”
“Puppet.” Zuko finished the sentence for her, and her expression took on an inspired look.
“Yeah. Puppet. Seems like you know a thing or two about that.”
“Maybe a bit more than two.” Zuko joked, grinning.
“ So you were introduced as Ambassador Zuko. What are you the ambassador to?” Toph asked, curious.
“The Fire Nation ambassador to the Water Tribes. But now I guess you could say I’m recently unemployed.”
“ Why’s that?” The girl asked, frowning.
Zuko winced. “Because the Fire Nation is about to declare war on the Northern Water Tribe.”
Toph wrinkled her nose in disgust. “You guys have to stop with the wars. I’m all for a good fight, but jeez. Didn’t you get enough out of the last one?”
“Apparently not.” Zuko felt guilty. “The Fire Nation won’t be happy until the entire world is under their control.”
“And you won’t be happy while it is.” Toph commented, and Zuko’s eyes widened at her insight.
“Uh...” He didn’t know what to say.
“I can sense your heartbeat through the ground. It’s slow, and given your tone of voice, you’re sad, but not about the lack of a job. You’re sad about the war.”
“Do me a favor, don’t tell anyone that. And you can sense my heartbeat?” Zuko asked, catching what she had just said.
“Yeah. I can usually tell when people are lying to me because of that neat trick.” She smirks.
“That would’ve been useful, growing up around my sister.” Zuko imagined.
“ So how’d you get your scar? You weren’t lying about that earlier, even if your uncle was lying about why you were travelling to Ba Sing Se.”
“I don’t want to talk abo...wait, what? What do you mean my uncle was lying about why he was travelling with me. The trip was my idea.”
Toph shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is that when he answered my dad, he was lying about something.”
Zuko glanced in the direction of his uncle, who was now almost a speck down the path, and that was when Zuko realized he was alone. He could sneak away, and no one would notice.
“Sounds like you’ve just realized something.” Toph said, and Zuko remembered that she was there, pulling him out of his thoughts.
“Yes. I’m sorry, but I have to go.” He turns to run, but she grabs his arm.
“Wait.” She says, stopping him. “Let me come with you.”
Zuko freezes in alarm. “Excuse me?”
“To Ba Sing Se! Let me come with you.” She asked, and Zuko shakes his head for a moment, before remembering she couldn’t see that.
“I’m not going to Ba Sing Se anymore.” Toph frowns.
“Then where are you going?” She asks, confused.
“I’m going home, back to the Southern Water Tribe.”